Is someone at your workplace being paid hundreds pounds per hour to scare you out of joining a union?
Scott Clouder looks at the US company Burke Group which has been infiltrating British shores recently.
It may come as a surprise to UK readers that the majority of US firms routinely employ outside consultants to stop unions organising at their workplace. The phenomenon has been widespread there since the 1970s and only in the past five years has the concept begun to take hold in Britain. Spearheading the charge to destroy British union activity is The Burke Group. TBG Consulting (as it is also known) is not a name recognised by many workers...even those who end up voting against a union in their workplace may have little idea that their opinions have been swayed by TBG.
This coercion by stealth is the very aspect of the Burke Group’s operation that makes it successful - and so damaging to the rights of workers seeking collective representation. In America, between 50 and 60 million people say they want union representation but are unable to get it.
This is due in no small part to the fact that over 80% of US employers commission outside consultants to banish the ‘threat’ of union representation at their business. Private sector union membership stands at just 7.5% and, examining the tactics of “Union Avoidance Consultants” such as The Burke Group, it is easy to see why.
Based in Malibu, California, and operating teams of quasi-freelance consultants under the banners of TBG Consulting, Labor Information services and Omega Training (UK), The Burke Group turns up to eradicate union sentiment wherever employers require it. Increasingly, employers of all stripes see a need for outside muscle when it comes to collective bargaining.
Many clients are iconic worldwide brands such as Coca-Cola, Mazda, General Electric, Heinz, DuPont, and Lockheed Martin. However, bosses at Catholic Healthcare West, a non-profit hospital provider in California (and major recipient of public money) clearly felt that a union nurse was a dangerous nurse, as it spent over US$2 million on TBG’s union-busting services.
In March 2001, 95% of employees at the China Daily News, North America’s largest Chinese language newspaper, voted for union representation to alter working conditions that employees felt were unfair. The newspaper hired TBG and told workers that it was prepared to spend $1 million on defeating the union. It did.
After almost five years of subsequent campaigning by TBG the union lost a re-run election and the Chinese Daily News got its money’s worth. Ironically, in 2007, employees were awarded $2.5 million for numerous labour law violations committed by the newspaper company, but they still do not have their union representation.
Technically it is illegal under (US) employment law for a company to threaten to relocate, but in half of the elections to bring a union into a workplace, the company announces it will move if workers vote yes. Employers who do this are not penalized in any meaningful way.
75% of cases workers are given one-on-one meetings with their bosses before the vote is held, and, although it is illegal to sack any of the leaders of a union election, at one in four votes sackings do ensue - equivalent to about 20,000 dismissals a year.
In the UK, laws are tighter, but it does not make workers immune to the tactics of the consultants. An individual worker, when bombarded with enough newsletters, DVDs, compulsory workers' meetings and one on one “chats” with their supervisor, may eventually cave in and vote against union representation, especially when presented with a free handy strike-pay calculator, showing them exactly how much pay they’d lose each day “when” their union called them out to strike.
None of this is illegal, (even the captive audience meetings which as academic John Logan points out, would be classed as unlawful imprisonment in other walks of life). However, the general sense of a lack of fair play disturbed even the UK government-appointed Central Arbitration Committee, which was convened in 2000 to rule on union disputes. During a ruling on a dispute between the Communications Workers Union and Cable & Wireless (see below), it surmised in April 2008 that “The panel shares the union’s concerns about TBG’s unfortunate track record, according to union and academic sources.”
However TBG took exception to this and three months later, committee chair, High Court judge SirMichael Burton, agreed to the “exceptional” step of reissuing the judgement with the panel’s criticism of the group erased. The new version reads “TBG is alleged by the union to have an unfortunate track record”.
The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) joined together with US counterpart the AFL-CIO to condemn the union avoidance industry. Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO’s director of organising, said: “The US’s $4bn [£2.1bn] union- busting industry is by far our worst export. As the industry grows in the UK, it makes sense that we band together.”
This statement came as the TUC commissioned a study of the Burke Group and the threat it poses to unions by Dr John Logan, a lecturer in employment relations at the London School of Economics. The report described the inroads TBG has made into the British market. Some local examples include GE Caledonian, Amazon.co.uk (see the Bookshops report in this issue), T-Mobile and Honeywell. Others include Cable & Wireless, FlyBE and Kettle Chips.
Cable & Wireless
C&W has been cutting staff since it took over Energis in 2005. Whilst it expects its UK workforce to drop from 5,500 to under 3,500 in the next few years, UK boss John Pluthero stands to pocket more than £20m by 2010 after having the limits on his bonus payout removed.
Despite recognising unions in other regions (like the Irish Republic and the Channel Islands), Cable & Wireless hired The Burke Group to stop the Communications Workers Union gaining recognition in relation to the company’s field services workers. The Burke Group’s consultants had the workers spooked enough to vote against union recognition, even though 56% of them were actually union members.
In 2006, 400 cabin crew from airline FlyBE attempted to gain recognition for the T & G union (now Unite). The low cost carrier (through the mouthpiece of TBG Consulting) cautioned that it might cut jobs if the union campaign succeeded. TBG also communicated the message that the unions were only in it for the dues money anyway. Portraying union fat cat bosses is a common tactic, and an ironic one considering the salaries that the company chief executives make, and the amount corporations pay to retain the services of The Burke Group.
Despite this, Unite union persuaded FlyBE to ditch TBG, and then workers voted the union in with a landslide, making those workers the only ones in the UK who have achieved union recognition when faced with opposition from TBG. This situation caused much embarrassment for The Burke Group as it was not a company that was used to losing unionisation battles.
Readers with accounts on social networking website Facebook can witness what happens when word gets out that a corporation has hired TBG. Currently there are over 700 members of the “Boycott Kettle Chips: the anti-union snack” network group on the website. It emerged in 2007 that TBG has been brought in to “dissuade” factory workers from joining Unite. Lion Capital, the private equity firm that recently bought Kettle Chips, swiftly hired famous PR firm Hill & Knowlton to repair its damaged reputation.
American companies wouldn’t necessarily have bothered to downplay tactics like persuasion-via-supervisor or misrepresenting the likelihood of strike action, but Kettle was faced with national press coverage of its human resources techniques.
Labour MEP Paul Howitt was looking to obtain answers from the managing director and warned that Lion might be in breach of government guidelines about transparency and external consultancies. He said; “Bringing in US union-busters raises a much wider issue as it goes against the whole spirit of government legislation over union recognition, which is to promote a social partnership between workers and management.”
Stewart Acuff, director of organising at the AFL-CIO puts it more bluntly; “At the end of the day, it’s just intimidation,” he says.”The intellectual arguments used by these consultants are easily refutable and practically irrelevant. What works is the intimidation - the threat that you are going to lose your job, or car or house.”
2 ibid NB: California state legislature has since passed a law banning the use of public money for anti-union activities
3 The Guardian 26.02.08
4 Daily Telegraph 03.08.08
5 ibid 6 FT.COM 12.02.08
7 The Guardian 18.08.07
8 Logan (2008) - at 2004 prices
9 The Guardian 01.10.07
10 The Guardian 26.02.08