How did the United States brand of union-busting become a thing?
25th August, 2020
This is an edited version of a book review I wrote earlier this year for the journal ‘Labour and Industry’ , published online at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10301763.2020.1724635
R. Feurer and C. Pearson (eds): Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017, 269 pp.
This edited collection provides important new insights into the historical antecedents of the thriving industry of ‘union-busting’ that has become an unfortunate hallmark of modern labour relations in the United States. The book adds to the voluminous existing literature exploring the decline of US unions, and the limitations of the nation’s labour laws which have been ruthlessly exploited by employers to thwart union organising. Through its focus on the historical evolution of these trends, readers of Labour and Industry will find in this book an illuminating addition to contemporary accounts of the US industrial relations landscape.
The various contributions to this collection generally succeed in fulfilling the editors’ stated aim of demonstrating the links between employer responses to working-class activism in past generations, and the shape of modern-day American antiunionism (p.1). The editors persuasively argue that employer activism against unions must be understood in its historical context, as a deliberate strategy involving employers constructing themselves as a class and utilising the legal and institutional arms of the state to combat workers’ interests (pp.2, 4-8).
After an introductory chapter in which the editors outline the purposes and key questions of this study, and an overview of employer organisation against labour in the US since the period prior to the Civil War, the book is comprised of nine chapters. These are written by scholars from various disciplines, mostly historians but also experts in American studies and management. Nearly all of the contributors have strong research backgrounds in US labour history, and most of them are US-based (along with one from Canada and another from NZ). Rather than following a chapter-based structure, this review identifies the major themes and overall significance of the collection.
In the Introduction, the editors identify the successive waves of aggressive employer organising against unions which predated the rise of neoliberalism and ‘the Right’ in the 1980s (p.4). These included the breaking of union closed-shops under the ‘business-led “American Plan”’ in the 1920s; the counter-insurgency against the New Deal era’s legislative support for unions using enticements and demoralisation tactics (known as ‘the Mohawk Valley Formula [which] lives on as the key strategy of antiunion consulting firms today’); and deployment of the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments to support employer free speech, shut down strikes and obtain ‘right-to-work’ laws in many southern and western states (pp.12-14).
The chapters which follow fill this story out through detailed studies of specific instances of employer antiunionism at various periods of time, in particular locations, or involving key individuals. An example of the latter is Chapter 6 by Feurer examining ‘the strange career of A.A. Ahner’, who headed up one of the leading detective agencies used for ‘employer espionage’ from the New Deal era on (p.160). The LaFollette Committee of the U.S. Senate (1936-1940) exposed the underhand tactics of agents like Ahner (including bribes, beatings and attempted murder), leading to a transformation in their operations from ‘blackjack’ to ‘briefcase’ methods (pp.160-161). Yet Ahner survived this scrutiny and ‘morphed into a labor relations consultant’, arbitrator and union avoidance counsellor, successfully spruiking his services until the 1950s (pp.161, 167-177). Feurer connects Ahner’s work with John Tate’s later development of anti-union strategies for Walmart (p.177). Not mentioned, although surely another shining example of the Ahner legacy, is renowned union buster-turned-confessant Martin Jay Levitt (see Levitt 2003).
The LaFollette Committee is considered further in Chapter 5 by Janiewski, which also takes in the work of the rival Dies Committee investigating un-American activities and the House Special Committee inquiry into the National Labor Relations Board. This forms part of an intriguing study of the early operation of the Wagner Act, its attempted use by the new Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) and efforts by the pre-existing American Federation of Labor to portray the CIO as ‘Communist’ – including through an alliance with the Dies Committee (p.134). The chapter shows that in this post-New Deal period, covert surveillance and intelligence-gathering were in widespread use by all parties: employers, unions and the Congressional committees (p.150).
In Chapter 2, Pearson assesses the efforts of employers to recruit non-unionists and strikebreakers to smash closed shops (the ‘open-shop movement’) in the Progressive Era. This saw the formation of coalitions and networks of associations with broadly similar objectives, such as the National Metal Trades Association (pp.57-59). Rhetorical campaigns were developed to distract workers from labour-capital conflict and emphasise instead the division ‘between hardworking, patriotic, independent-minded and law-abiding workers on the one hand and lawless, monopoly-imposing unionists on the other’ (p.58; see also p.67). Connections were formed with churches and citizens’ groups in an effort to portray strikebreaking as a ‘moral duty’ (e.g. Reverend Edwin Milton Fairchild’s formation of the Independent Labor League of America in Elmira, New York in 1903) (pp.60-69).
The quest for the open shop is also explored in Chapter 3, Klug’s account of a series of disputes in the brass manufacturing and metal polishing industries at the turn of the century which earned Detroit the moniker ‘the labor trouble city’ (p.91); and Chapter 4, in which Woodrum traces the successful campaign by employers (assisted by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan) to deunionise the waterfront in Mobile, Alabama in the decade following World War I. In Chapter 7, Stanger examines the Columbus, Ohio printing employers’ association’s initial eschewing of ‘open-shop drives’ between 1887 and 1945 – followed by a shift to a more belligerent form of anti-unionism which achieved its desired effects by the late 1980s (p.184).
This harder-edged approach is more starkly illustrated by Dennis in Chapter 8, focusing on a union organising campaign in Virginia grocery stores in the early 1990s. This was countered by Walmart-style ‘visceral antiunionism’ (p.212) by the Be-Lo grocery chain, involving the deployment of union avoidance tactics now regarded as commonplace (see Logan 2006). These included direct approaches to employees about the dire consequences of unionisation, firing of union activists, and aggressive litigation right up to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal which saw the union campaign defeated in the courts and on the ground (pp.219-228).
The virulent and often violent nature of employer organising is a recurring theme in the book. For example, Pearson describes the use of ‘Old West-style vigilante tactics’ by Cheyenne’s Citizens’ Alliance in response to a railroad yard strike in 1904, in which a 463-strong group supporting ‘besieged antiunionists’: ‘got our guns, and … marched down to those yards’ to demand that the strikers step aside (p.68). However, Klug shows that unionists were also willing to resort to violent tactics, such as the ‘hail of stones and bricks’ (and later, ‘beer bottles’) hurled at ‘scabs’ in the Detroit brass industry strike in 1907 (pp.90-91).
This is a highly informative book, but there are several weaknesses. Chapter 1 by Esch and Roediger contains some important reflections on the use of race as a managerial tool to divide workers in the early 20th century – but does not sufficiently connect this to the central concerns of the book. The link between race and employers’ anti-union strategies is more clearly highlighted in Chapter 4 (see above).
The selection of case studies in the book seems arbitrary, which is not of itself a major problem but for the fact that there is something of a gap in the time period covered. The chapters mostly span the late 19th century to the 1950s, with a leap to the 1990s in Chapter 8. The period in between is only covered in the narrow context of the Ohio printing industry in Chapter 7, leaving the reader wanting to know more about the continued evolution of union avoidance from the 1960s to the 80s.
Rachcliff’s concluding chapter brings the tale into the 21st century, starting with a brief discussion of the neoliberal ascendancy in the decades preceding it. Neoliberalism and its free-market, deregulatory agenda provided a fillip to new strains of employer antiunionism and the ‘ideological triumph’ of the capitalist class (p.243). Rathcliff is right to point to signs of optimism in the union campaigns against hostile laws emanating from Republican state legislatures in the 2010s (pp.244-245; on this and other recent union wins, see further Greenhouse 2019). However, his suggestion that employers have achieved only limited success ‘in achieving a non-union environment’ (p.236) is rather unconvincing in light of the dramatic, continuing decline in US union membership levels.
Overall, the ‘deep historical roots’ of contemporary employer offensives against US unions (pp.239-241) are inarguable – and thanks to this mostly enlightening work, even clearer for all of us to see. The book may have been written mostly by, and for, historians. However, it will also be very useful for scholars and students of industrial relations and labour law, as well as those more practically engaged in these fields including union officials and management representatives.
Levitt, M (2003) Confessions of a Union Buster, Crown Publishers, University of Michigan.
Logan, J (2006) ‘The Union Avoidance Industry in the United States’ British Journal of Industrial Relations, 44 (4) pp. 651-75.
Greenhouse, S (2019) Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
 The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or ‘Wagner Act’.