When angry paper-mill workers in three states finally called off their 16-month strike against International Paper Co. in October, they did not do it for higher pay (there was none) or to return to work (they will have to wait for new openings). Solidarity among the strikers had not wavered.
Rather, the company was prospering, effectively running the plants with permanent replacements. And those replacement workers were ready to vote to decertify, or toss out, the United Paperworkers union. That hastened a decision by the national union to end the strike, despite local union resolve, and keep its foothold in the IPC plants.
“The broader picture of this fits the trend of a declining number of strikes and an accurate perception that the current labor atmosphere makes it difficult to wage a successful strike,” admitted Rand Wilson, a union official.
Emboldened by then-President Ronald Reagan’s elimination of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization during its illegal strike in 1981, more-militant employers have continued to operate during strikes and have often provoked them as a means of eliminating the union.
Relying on the anti-union feelings of replacement workers, who would lose their jobs if the union prevailed, militant employers are pushing decertification votes or withdrawing recognition from unions during protracted labor disputes.
After 12 months on strike, striking employees even lose their right to vote on whether the union should be retained or disbanded at the business, leaving that decision to the strikebreakers.
(Under labor law, 30% of the employees must petition to decertify a union. The National Labor Relations Board then oversees an election at the work site, and, if the result is not challenged by any party within seven days, officially declares whether the union remains or is rejected, decided by a majority of ballots cast.)
“Nothing has changed with the laws, which have been in effect for years, but in the increased readiness of employers to use permanent strike replacements in the 1980s,” said Paul Weiler, labor law professor at Harvard University. “There is a greater respectability for union-free workplaces; it is more acceptable among employers, because of Reagan.
“Once an employer establishes the ability to keep operating in a strike with replacement employees, the union certainly faces potential withdrawal of recognition.”
About 800 petitions are filed with the labor board in an average year by employees seeking to oust their union. That is four times the number filed in the 1950s, when postwar unionism was flexing its organizing muscle and when one in three workers carried a union card; today, only one in six workers belongs to a union.
Unions win less than one-fourth of today’s decertification votes, and they win less than half of all votes on union representation in the workplace. Only a handful of decertification votes occur during strikes, but the potential is sobering for unions considering a long-term walkout.
Less Willing to Strike
Unions are increasingly less willing to strike today. Major strikes in the United States averaged nearly 300 a year in the 1960s and 1970s, when unions were confident of victory; in this decade, they have averaged fewer than 100 a year.
Decertification of unions has been an effective strategy for management faced with a prolonged strike.
The Coors brewery strike in 1977 showed employers the way, as the Colorado beer maker hired replacements and encouraged them to vote out the union a year later. Coors continued to do well in its traditional Western markets. But the company’s expansion to nationwide distribution encouraged peacemaking with the AFL-CIO and produced an agreement to allow workers to vote on forming a union. (Late last year, employees rejected the Teamsters as their representative.)
McCreary Tire resorted to a classic anti-union tactic when its 200 plant workers in Indiana, Pa., refused a wage freeze in 1986. It locked out the employees, hired replacements to run the plant and those replacements voted last March to decertify the union.
Strikers Lose Jobs
Strikers at a Louisville, Ky., lawn equipment plant lost their jobs last summer after a decertification vote dominated by permanent replacements who had filed with the board for the election. The United Auto Workers filed unfair labor charges against the company in an effort to halt the election, but the agency dismissed the charges and ordered the vote.
(The NLRB under the Reagan Administration has been antipathetic toward union complaints. In the Jimmy Carter Administration, labor won 70% of the disputes before the agency; today unions lose 70% of their cases.)
Lukewarm support among workers for a strike is also a signal for some companies to push decertification. Earlier this year, replacement workers (and some disgruntled strikers) at the Custom Coach Corp. plant in Ohio asked for decertification of the Teamsters Union, and most of the union members still on strike hustled back to work in order not to be frozen out.
“You’re dead in the water, you have to go back in. . . . We don’t like it, but we don’t have no strength,” explained Ray Finnerty, president of Teamsters Local 284 in Columbus. “It’s the times.” The Teamsters later won the decertification election and got a new contract.
Drift to Other Jobs
Plans to officially oust a striking union can be held up by appeals of unfair labor practices to the board and through the courts. But that same delay can discourage strikers, who may drift to other jobs, and entrench the replacement workers.
There are obvious disadvantages for an employer intent on ousting a striking union by hiring permanent replacement workers, Weiler pointed out. Companies do not want to lose skilled, experienced employees--although they may welcome the opportunity to lose relatively unskilled unionized workers who are on strike. An employer may not want to kill the union at one plant if the company has to deal with that union in the long run elsewhere.
(Companies that continue to function during a strike with temporary workers, as many do, are not threatening the union because temporaries do not have standing to vote out the union.)
The question is whether a company can continue to operate effectively--selling its product as well as producing it--with the anti-union label. Companies such as Brown & Sharpe, which sells tools to other manufacturers, are not dependent on the same public image as are producers of consumer products, such as a brewer.
Even consumer products, if they are not readily identifiable, are difficult for ousted unions to combat.
The United Food and Commercial Workers local was decertified by replacement employees and union members who crossed the lines at Marval Poultry in 1984. Turkeys processed by the Virginia plant were the target of a national AFL-CIO boycott, but that effort was recently dropped because the impact on sales had been minimal.
Resorting to a “corporate campaign” to mobilize public pressure on a company’s pocketbook is another fight-back tactic of striking unions, but one that has produced declining returns in recent years.