Adapted from the March 2009 issue of Z Magazine
Anti-Union Campaigns and The Big Three Bullies
By Chip Berlet
Corporate America and a well-funded network of ultraconservative think tanks and policy centers are raising tens of millions of dollars to fight pending legislation allowing union card check campaigns. These campaigns collect a majority of worker signatures to qualify for their recognition as a union bargaining unit. The official title of the legislation is the "Employee Free Choice Act."
The right-wing campaign is built around slogans claiming supervised "secret ballots" are a better "more American" system. What they don't say is that corporate America has an arsenal of strategies and tactics to delay elections and intimidate and fire pro-union employees, rendering the current ballot system unfair and unworkable.
The long history of ultraconservative anti-union employer group activities makes clear why supporting something like the union card check legislation should be a high priority for activists on the left.
Up until the 1930s the two main employer organizations actively mounting campaigns to block union organizing were the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In the mid-1930s the newly created United States Business and Industry Council joined them. The three groups became the backbone of the early anti-union "Right to Work Network."
National Association of Manufacturers
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1895. NAM "tended to represent small businessmen, was fiercely anti-union and strongly endorsed the 'open shop' crusade to ban union influence in industrial plants," according to historian M.J. Heale in her book American Anticommunism.
The organization's position on labor unions was clear from the beginning, as it explains in its own history: "The genesis of the NAM's commitment to sound employee relations policies was the anthracite coal strike of 1902. The following year, the NAM established an internal department to advocate open shop labor policies."
The term "open shop" was coined at a NAM meeting in 1903. This was a way to stir up anti-union sentiment by reframing the debate as between an "open shop" versus what employers call a "closed shop," shifting the focus from a group effort for economic fairness through union security to a claim of individual rights and liberties, observes pro-union journalist Karin Chenoweth.
This type of reframing of public perceptions has been of special interest to NAM. In 1934, concern over many of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal proposals and key labor issues prompted NAM to launch a public relations campaign "for the dissemination of sound American doctrines to the public." During the next 13 years, NAM's National Industrial Information Committee spent more than $15 million on leaflets, radio speeches, films for schools, reprints of articles by economists, and other public relations efforts. A daily NAM column appeared in 260 newspapers with a circulation of more than 4.5 million in 1936. NAM's movie shorts were seen by six million in 1937.
NAM also directly attacked unions such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. "Red scare tactics were frequently employed in attempts to halt the surge of unionization," writes Heale, with NAM issuing one pamphlet titled "Join the CIO and Help Build a Soviet America." After the AFL and CIO unions merged, one NAM leader suggested businesses needed to help NAM "organize for solidarity or face a powerful attack on the free enterprise system" by unions in the 1950s, according to Gilbert J. Gall, author of The Politics of Right to Work.
Along the way, NAM claims credit for having "helped launch the National Council of Commerce in 1907." This was a predecessor group to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber of Commerce
In 1912 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was established at the suggestion of President Taft. A popular image of the Chamber of Commerce is a group of smiling business-owners shaking hands with the town mayor at the opening of a new hardware store. That's one accurate snapshot—but there are other pictures worth examining. The national organization has a long history of promoting anti-union activism and legislation.
The Chamber was active in various "open shop" campaigns. Around World War I it helped formulate what was called the "American Plan." The theme of this campaign was that "voluntary unionism" was one thing, but the union shop was "un-American," wrote Chenoweth.
Local union #38 of the plumbers and pipefitters teaches its members about its roots battling the anti-union American Plan in the 1920s: "In San Francisco, the Industrial Relations Committee of the Chamber of Commerce established the Industrial Association, which, working with the Builders Exchange, an employers' organization, set out to break the back of the city's unions. In January 1922 the city's Building Trades Council refused to submit to an across-the-board wage cut, and the employers responded with a citywide lockout. When the unions agreed to accept the new rates, the employers offered to rehire only those men who agreed to work in open shops."
Chamber rhetoric about labor unions in the 1930s presaged the later McCarthy period reliance on red-baiting—the use of dubious or invented claims of communist allegiances to unfairly tar a target in the public mind. This was not entirely a marginal view at the time.
According to Heale: "The United States Chamber of Commerce represented the views of many small businessmen and some big ones in its periodic imprecations against the New Deal, labor unions, and anything resembling socialism...." The Chamber also set up a Voluntary Unionism committee to spread the "open shop" message.
U.S. Business and Industry Council
Even further to the right of NAM and the Chamber is the United States Business and Industry Council (USBIC). John E. Edgerton was the first president of the Council after serving as president of NAM. Formed in 1933 as the Southern States Industrial Council, the organizing conference was attended by "presidents and secretaries of Southern state manufacturers' associations." The roots of USBIC tap directly into the backlash against Roosevelt. According to the official USBIC history: "The United States Business and Industry Council (USBIC) was established in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. Its founders intended it to respond to the economic challenges of that time, as well as to the political challenges posed to business by the Roosevelt Administration."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt the government should play a constructive role in promoting economic fairness and social justice. "A huge proportion of all those who became unionists during the 1930s and 1940s were African Americans, Mexican Americans, or European immigrants. For them the New Deal and the new unionism represented not just a higher standard of living," explains Heale, "but a doorway that opened onto the democratic promise of American life."
When anti-union forces mobilized to block Roosevelt's agenda, they were eventually able to build an ad-hoc, but powerful coalition of conservative and libertarian business leaders, right-wing Christians, anti-Communists, anti-Semites, and white supremacists seeking the "rollback" of Roosevelt's programs.