By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
A recent surge in private sector union organizing has raised public awareness about the National Labor Relations Board representation election process, the tactics employers use to fight unions, and the challenges involved in obtaining first contracts.
I learned firsthand just how difficult this process can be during an organizing campaign I worked on in the early 1980s as a staffer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).
Late in 1983, workers from Columbia Textile, a dyeing and finishing operation in Paterson, New Jersey, contacted us about organizing their shop. Most of the workers hailed from the Dominican Republic and showed a strong sense of ethnic and class solidarity. Determined to improve their conditions, the workers sought representation by ACTWU Local 1733.
Columbia’s vicious anti-union campaign—which later resulted in labor board charges—included spying on union supporters, eliminating their overtime, offering benefits if they rejected our union, and firing key members of the union organizing committee. Most tellingly, Columbia conspired with a Teamsters union local to intervene in the election and threatened to close the shop if workers did not vote for them.
The February 1984 election ended in a tie vote between ACTWU and the Teamsters. As the regional NLRB counsel noted in his brief to the administrative law judge hearing our case: “Under these conditions it is amazing that Local 1733 garnered as many votes as it did.”
The chronology of the campaign becomes important here. Although the workers were gratified to see the labor board publicly expose the company’s wrongdoing, the wheels of justice ground slowly. Two years after the election in 1986, the judge upheld the finding that Columbia had broken federal labor law. Unmoved and at considerable cost, Columbia’s owner decided to exhaust his legal options. He appealed the judge’s decision to the NLRB’s five-member board in Washington, DC. Three years later, in 1989, the board affirmed the judge’s decision. The company then petitioned the District of Columbia Circuit of the U. S. Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel in 1990 sustained the NLRB decision. Ironically, one of the appeals court judges was Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority in a rare pro-union ruling!
In a final act of defiance, Columbia appealed the order to pay back wages to workers it had discriminated against. The back pay, which now totaled over $375,000, finally came through in 1992, eight years after the initial organizing campaign had begun. However, over $100,000 of this back pay went into an escrow account, because the NLRB could not locate several of the workers. Following this decision, I believe that ACTWU considered trying for another election. However, with so much time having elapsed, many of the workers involved initially had left the company, complicating efforts to restart the campaign.
I offer this story as both a cautionary note and a call to arms. If a small company like Columbia Textile could drag out the NLRB process for eight years, we can only imagine what deep-pocketed firms like Starbucks and Amazon might do to thwart the will of workers. It will require an all-out effort to overcome their resistance. This effort will demand the ongoing courage and determination of workers, aggressive enforcement from the NLRB, visible support by elected officials, and withholding public subsidies for companies like Amazon that engage in union busting. The entire union movement must declare its full solidarity in both word and deed. And the public must be rallied to let companies know their reputations and bottom lines will suffer if they deny workers their rights.
As I learned all too well 30 years ago during the Columbia Textile campaign, justice delayed is truly justice denied.