08/28/2012 10:03 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Union Busting 101

There's lots of places to look when searching for the roots of organized labor's decline. By "decline" I refer not simply to the precipitous drop in membership roles (which began in the mid-1960s and continues today), but to the profound decline in labor's influence and credibility. And it's no accident that that decline coincides with the increase in corporate hegemony and the on-going erosion of the middle class.

Purists say it began in 1947, with passage (by a Republican Congress over Truman's veto) of the Taft-Hartley Act. Taft-Hartley rescinded or watered down many of the provisions of the historic 1935 National Labor Relations Act (commonly known as the "Wagner Act"), the legislation generally recognized as having ushered in the era of the modern labor union.

For 60 years labor activists have flirted with repealing Taft-Hartley. While some efforts made it as far as the floor of Congress, most broke down in the driveway. Despite a consensus that Taft-Hartley is a hindrance to labor's organizing and bargaining ability, there simply isn't sufficient interest or muscle to put up a fight, and, given the direction of the country, very likely never will be.

Some hardcore labor wonks even blame the Wagner Act itself for setting unions on the wrong course. The ACLU (founded in 1920) warned organized labor against endorsing Wagner, arguing that when you acknowledge the government's power to "certify" you, you also acknowledge its power to "decertify" you. The ACLU urged labor to continue going it alone, as it had been doing since the 1840s, and tell the feds to butt out.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters takes a more parochial view. They argue that labor's decline started with the Carter administration's deregulation of interstate trucking, a development that transformed the Teamies (the nation's largest and most powerful union at the time) from Lords of the Highways into little more than a bunch of glorified truck drivers. Accordingly, Carter's move (and President Ford's railroad deregulation before him) helped launch what would become the great race to deregulate the world.

More recently, it's been suggested that the snake in the woodpile was Ronald Reagan's abrupt firing of 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers, in 1981. This wildly provocative act served to reinvigorate dormant anti-labor sentiment in ways no one anticipated. It was as if corporate America had been waiting in the weeds for the just right moment to wage open war against organized labor, and the president of the United States was good enough to supply it.

Still, as damaging as these anti-union initiatives were, they never quite succeeded in destroying the one component management fears most: worker solidarity. Through all the disappointments, assaults, takeaways, restructures, false hopes and broken promises, the membership, by and large, remained loyal to the Movement. Nothing is more galvanizing than identifying oneself as part of a group (labor) that is being systematically exploited by a powerful authority figure (management).

But something emerged in the mid-1980s that has the potential to be even more damaging than anything that came before it. Having concluded that they couldn't destroy union solidarity by attacking, isolating or starving it, management seized upon an alternative tactic that no one (or few) saw coming. Companies discovered that solidarity could be broken down from the inside, by corrupting it.

This was done by introducing something called "special assignments." A special assignment is an arrangement where hourly workers are taken off their regular jobs and assigned to non-bargaining, non-supervisory tasks for periods ranging from one week to, literally, several years.

Initially, special assignments started off modestly, confined to minor projects. However, as things progressed -- as the shift-supervisor and certain clerical positions were phased out -- hourly workers began taking on many of the day-to-day administrative duties. And as long as special assignments didn't involve bargaining unit work, or spill over into what the NLRB defines as "supervisory roles" (issuing work directives, promotions, demotions, reprimands, etc.), they were perfectly legal.

While union contracts set the hourly rate for special assignment workers, they don't address the distribution of overtime (which is paid at time-and-a-half). Seeing an opportunity, management encouraged special assignment people to assign themselves as much overtime as they wished, with no questions asked. You can imagine the effect this had. In an environment where premium pay was coveted, an hourly worker being allowed to invent his or her own overtime was seen as manna from Heaven.

Management's argument for establishing special assignments came in two parts. First, they quoted studies showing that when you take people off the production line and give them a chance to "spread their wings," their mental outlook improves dramatically; and second, they noted that because their competitors were eliminating salaried positions for cost reasons, and using hourly workers to pick up the slack, special assignments were no longer a luxury; they were a necessity.

Management's arguments made sense. Not wanting to appear stubbornly obstructionist, the union leadership grudgingly gave the plan its tentative blessing. And that's how the Trojan horse entered the city.

Two types of employees typically get offered these assignments: (1) the smart, hard-working, de facto crew leaders who feel they're "over-qualified" for the drudge jobs they've been doing for years, and look forward to a change, and (2) those workers who are technically proficient but fall into the "trouble-maker, jailhouse lawyer" category.

Surprisingly, not only does management turn these "trouble-makers" (often the brightest people on the crew and the union's most reliable supporters) into model citizens, they do it instantly, and with few props: a computer, a coffee-maker, a swivel chair. Human nature does the rest. Pull them off the floor, put them in an air-conditioned office with a desk, and voila! -- they forget they ever belonged to a labor union or worked on the graveyard shift.

Barely three weeks into these cushy office jobs, and these "radicals" already have photos of their wives and kids on their desks. They take coffee breaks with management folks, eat management food, laugh at management jokes, and use management-speak to express themselves. It's corporate America's version of the Stepford Wives.

Of course, the effect on the crews is predictable. Morale plummets. People on the floor resent having their peers being placed "above" them -- doing office work and making more money -- and they blame the union, not the company, for letting it happen. But even the "have nots," the resentful ones who weren't picked in the first go-round, begin plotting how to get those plum positions for themselves in the next go-round. And who can blame them? Those jobs are better. But it destroys solidarity.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the union attempts to negotiate these spots into the hourly progression ladder -- make them straight-up union jobs, open to everyone, via seniority -- but the company refuses to consider it. They have a good thing going and they know it.

Moreover, the membership now looks to the company as its benefactor. Members see their union not only as stodgy and ineffective, but in some ways (like when it begins filing grievances to scale back the program) as an impediment. Full disclosure: Local union officers are known to accept these assignments as well. While this is discouraging, it's not surprising. When the gravy train rolls by, everyone wants to jump on.

Special assignments are now epidemic in America. As more union workers run day-to-day operations, and the membrane separating labor and management grows increasingly thinner, rank-and-file holdouts are uncertain where to go for help when a dispute breaks out. It's a mess. And this isn't a case of a union spouting its usual pieties, or having its feelings hurt over losing a turf war. It's about the welfare of working people.

Just look at the facts. Despite all the "team-building" seminars, workers continue to fall further behind, as company profits continue to rise. Hourly pensions, health insurance and wages continue to erode, and union members continue to be asked to make huge concessions. Yet, somehow, management has these employees eating out of their hand, trying to please their masters--even when many of those wonderful perks have been eliminated.

Yes, eliminated. Not unexpectedly, the special assignment overtime that was once so plentiful has been drastically reduced. With "factory apes" (an HR term for hourly workers) having been fully domesticated by being given a taste of office work, and nobody wanting to go back to their mundane jobs (why would they?), it was now safe to withdraw the early inducements. Inevitably, management began taking steps to recoup their investment.

In truth, many of America's unions have been more or less co-opted by this phenomenon. When corporations found they couldn't beat the union, couldn't penetrate its core, they infiltrated it. They infiltrated it, found their way to the hallowed place, and extinguished the flame.

Looking back on it, few appreciated or understood just how valuable, how sustaining and healthy, that Us. vs. Them, "class warfare" mentality really was. Not until we looked around and discovered what we lost. Management used to rent us. Now they own us.