Chamber of Commerce, Unionbuster vs. Pope, Catholic Bishops on Union Rights

07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

While the Chamber of Commerce continues its smear campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act, the union movement enlisted a powerful ally yesterday in its drive for workers' rights: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, following the guidance of, yes, the Pope.

As the AFL-CIO blog noted:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has announced a new step forward for workers at Catholic health facilities: a set of principles to ensure that workers have a fair process to bargain for a better life.

In "Respecting the Just Rights of Workers: Guidance and Options for Catholic Health Care and Unions," the USCCB, in cooperation with Catholic health care providers and the union movement, has laid out guidelines for Catholic health care ministries across the country.

These guidelines, and the process that produced them, are an encouraging model of cooperation and collaboration in protecting workers' freedom to form unions and bargain.

The new guidelines cover seven principles for employers when workers seek a union:

* Respect;
* Access to information;
* Truthful communication;
* Pressure-free environment;
* Expeditious process;
* Honoring employee decisions; and
* Meaningful enforcement of these principles.

UPDATE: The Chamber of Commerce is coming under added fire today in a series of union-sponsored ads online and in political newspapers because of its alleged "two-faced" position on arbitration: for it when it stacks the deck for Big Business, and against it when workers seek it so they're not illegally denied a union contract. The new ad proclaims, under a photo of a working-class mother and her daughter, "One year after workers form unions, over half are still denied a contract by their employers."

Arbitration after negotiations and mediation fail is the answer, union advocates argue. Indeed, as American Rights at Work points out, businesses often use mediation and arbitration to settle labor disputes, overseen by the same federal agency, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, that business leaders are now railing against.

Despite such hypocritical business opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, the agreement with the Catholic bishops points towards a new direction in labor-management relations. As the SEIU blog reported, " The new report...renews the Bishops' call to Catholic health care employers to support the rights of workers to choose to join a union free from intimidation or harassment."

"At a moment when some in the business community are focused on diminishing the voice of workers, the Bishops are standing up for what is fair and what is just: that it is up to workers -- not bishops, hospital managers, or union leaders -- to choose to join a union," said SEIU Healthcare Chair Dennis Rivera in a statement today.

Indeed, those seven principles allowing for a level playing field and organizing without intimidation are, of course, exactly what advocates say the Employee Free Choice Act aims to ensure, although this agreement wasn't an explicit endorsement of the legislation.

In contrast, as I found when I went undercover to a unionbusting seminar hosted by Jackson Lewis, corporate America is horrified by the moral authority represented by religious leaders. That's why anti-union leaders are alarmed by the rising support for the legislation among the clergy, as reflected by such groups as the new coalition, Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness. Here's what an attorney for Jackson Lewis said about the PR challenge posed by religious support for unions, as I previously reported:

When I attended undercover a unionbusting seminar by the law firm Jackson Lewis for In These Times, the attorney for the firm recounted the outsized influence of the clergy in an SEIU battle to organize janitors in Houston (although his comments weren't in the final published article). He reported in horrified tones:

"The Justice for Janitors talked about raising the average wage. They went to the archbishop, the local politicians. The archbishop even held a mass for the Justice for Janitors. How can anybody fight that? I'm good at fighting Jimmy Hoffa, but a bishop? We have to deal with the pope's encyclical [Pope John Paul II's "On Human Work"] and people's faith."

The appearance of the clergy in an organizing drive appears to have the same impact on a unionbuster as waving a golden cross in the face of Dracula.

Now, it turns out, the Chamber of Commerce is promoting a "study" by this same controversial Jackson Lewis firm about the Employee Free Choice Act. (Note: even though Jackson Lewis has advised countless corporations in tough fights against unions, the law firm itself has, despite assorted accusations it has faced, has not been found by any court decision or administrative ruling to have engaged in illegal actions.)

The Chamber of Commerce ballyhooed the law firm's findings earlier this month:

U.S. Chamber Study Exposes What Unions Don't Want You to Know About Card Check Comprehensive Analysis Reveals EFCA is a Radical Threat to Balanced Labor Laws

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the Senate's leading supporters of the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) push for a vote on the bill, a comprehensive analysis of how its three major components would dramatically change existing labor laws without justification was released today by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"The leading arguments in favor of EFCA are based on shrill rhetoric castigating employers," said Randel Johnson, vice president of Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits at the U.S. Chamber. "However, facts do matter. The more people learn about EFCA, the less they like it. This analysis will provide an important contribution to the debate over EFCA by taking a measured and analytical approach to demonstrate that this bill is not justified and is not in the best interest of employees or employers."

The Employee Free Choice Act: Piercing the Rhetoric provides a comprehensive analysis of EFCA and how it would change existing labor laws. This review, prepared with the help of Martin F. Payson, Michael J. Lotito, and Harold R. Weinrich with the law firm Jackson Lewis LLP, critiques each of EFCA's three provisions: Card check certification for union organizing, compulsory interest arbitration of first contracts, and increased penalties on employers.

"Supporters of EFCA have been quick to demonize employers and mischaracterize existing law," Johnson said. "But you won't find the union leadership discussing the details of the bill, if they can help it. This is because changes to its major three components represent the most radical threat to balanced labor law in decades."

The facts about these myths about the legislation are perhaps best addressed in this comprehensive briefing paper about the bill from The Center for American Progress Action Fund, "The Employee Free Choice Act 101."

In addition, as American Rights at Work observes, Jackson Lewis isn't necessarily the most unbiased reviewer of these issues:

"Jackson Lewis presents itself as a reputable "national workplace law firm," yet under its polished veneer lies a for-profit unionbuster. In fact, Jackson Lewis is one of the oldest and largest union avoidance law firms in the nation. Jackson Lewis counsels businesses on labor relations strategies that prevent unions from entering the workplace. By operating in the shadows of corporate unionbusting campaigns, the firm remains virtually unknown to the general public.

"Jackson Lewis capitalizes on ineffective labor laws, the desperation of some employers to remain union free, and the use of scare tactics to portray unions as an enemy to businesses. One of the firm's lawyers iterates the modus operandi of Jackson Lewis best: "Jackson Lewis was founded on the concept of preventive labor relations, and we want to help our clients before there's full-blown organizing. We are a full-service law firm. We just don't do the legal stuff-we handle the campaign." As with other unionbusting firms Jackson Lewis profits off manipulation of a weak labor law system to help its clients avoid unions, at all costs.

American Rights at Work sums up:

"Preventive" Labor Relations Practices

Jackson Lewis sells a variety of services to employers to prevent workers from ever considering a union. Here are a few examples of the firm's activities, as reported by American Rights at Work:

* Vulnerability Assessments: The firm provides audits as the first step for employers looking to avoid a union organizing campaign. By assessing an employer's vulnerability through measures such as weaknesses in management-employee communication and levels of workplace satisfaction among employees. The assessment aims to create an "issue-free" workplace where management makes clear that their business desires to remain union-free.

* "How To Stay Union Free" Seminars: These two-day intensive workshops are for a "bona-fide management representative" only. Seminars with provocative titles such as "Union Avoidance War Games" take place throughout the country and run an employer anywhere from $595 to $1,595. Jackson Lewis promises a "frightening, valuable, and enjoyable" seminar that completely prepares "supervisors to exercise their union-free rights under the law." A 2007 exposé by a journalist who went undercover at one of these union-free workshops revealed how Jackson Lewis encourages employers to skirt the law when it comes to unions. A Jackson Lewis lawyer reasoned that it is acceptable to fire union organizers, as long as one creates a legitimate reason: "Union sympathizers aren't entitled to any more protection than other workers."

* Union-Free Books, Articles, and Pamphlets: Among the anti-union manuals the firm produces are suggestively titled newsletters such as "Union KNOw -a publication devoted to enhancing the union-free status of clients and friends of Jackson Lewis," and books including "Leveling the Playing Field-What New York Charter Schools' Leaders Need to Know About Union Organizing."

Unionbusting Behind the Scenes

Jackson Lewis' clients include employers of varying sizes and from a range of industries who call upon the firm to assist them in unionbusting. Since federal law does not require union-avoidance firms to disclose specific activities and costs associated with the practice of unionbusting, client lists and price tags are shielded and rarely disclosed. Below are just a few examples of companies where Jackson Lewis' involvement has surfaced:

* EnerSys (1995-2004): During an arduous organizing campaign, EnerSys, an industrial battery maker in South Carolina, hired Jackson Lewis to prevent workers from voting in a union. As The New York Times revealed, Jackson Lewis' participation in this aggressive anti-union campaign led EnerSys to file a malpractice lawsuit against the firm, for its legal 'advice' to EnerSys to break the law, which resulted in EnerSys amassing large legal bills and multi-million dollar settlements. Federal labor officials charged EnerSys with obstructing the organizing campaign, harassing and intimidating workers, and failing to bargain in good faith with workers-resulting in 120 violations of federal law. EnerSys' total bill for Jackson Lewis' services: $2.7 million. [Note to Huffington Post readers: The lawsuit was ultimately settled or withdrawn on undisclosed terms with no court finding of wrongdoing against Jackson Lewis.]

* Borders (1995-2000): Borders is a regular client of Jackson Lewis. The firm helped Borders crush union support by firing union activists and threatening to close stores if workers voted for union representation. Borders even banned Michael Moore from speaking at an event at all stores because he is a known union supporter.

* New York Daily News (1989-1991): The publisher of the New York Daily News hired Jackson Lewis six months before union contracts expired in 1989, in preparation for a "war" with the unions.8 The workers eventually went on strike in response to the employer's refusal to bargain contracts with the workers in good faith.

* Honda (1986-2007): Jackson Lewis is an ongoing representative of Honda suppliers. The firm boasts of preventing unions from taking over at a Honda plant in 1986 as one of its illustrious unionbusting accomplishments. Jackson Lewis is expected to play a pivotal role in an anti-union campaign in Alabama, where the United Auto Workers are launching an organizing drive at Alabama Honda plants in 2007.

* Massachusetts Hospitals Association (2006): Jackson Lewis negotiated contracts in 2006 as a representative of Massachusetts state hospitals whose employees are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 1199. The contentious negotiations nearly resulted in 23,000 employees striking.

* New York City Charter Schools (2006): The firm guided a charter school in the Bronx in preventing workers from even holding a vote for union representation. Jackson Lewis also prepared booklets advising charter schools how to stay union free for distribution in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

So, who should the public trust on the Employee Free Choice Act and workers' rights: The Chamber of Commerce and Jackson Lewis or the Pope? As the AFL-CIO Blog noted:

Pope Benedict XVI recently noted that Catholic social teachings are strongly supportive of workers' freedom to form unions and recognized the importance of workers' rights in a modern economy. Unfortunately, recent studies show the freedom to form a union is at risk from a legal climate that allows management harassment and intimidation. The principles put forward by the Catholic bishops are an important response to these trends in the workplace.