John Tate felt betrayed when Materion unilaterally cut retirement and vacation benefits at its Elmore, Ohio, plant. He’d devoted 10 years to the company and believed that it owed him and his co-workers a modicum of respect.
So Tate turned to the protections that unions provide and helped lead an organizing campaign with the United Steelworkers (USW). Despite widespread enthusiasm at the outset, the effort ultimately failed after Materion forced workers into mandatory company meetings where union-busting consultants bullied and threatened them.
A bill due for a vote next week in the U.S. House—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and other abusive tactics that corporations regularly use to thwart union drives. Making it easier for grassroots activists like Tate to organize will help rebuild a middle class decimated by corporate greed and curb the runaway income equality that imperils American democracy.
Labor organizers emphasize solidarity—strength through collective action—while union-busters deliberately sow discord and prey on workers’ fears for their individual livelihoods.
Tate noticed that difference when Materion, a producer of beryllium-based metals, brought in the hired-gun “union-avoidance” consultants and forced about 440 workers to attend multiple anti-union meetings. The consultants belittled workers—even questioned their intelligence for wanting to join a union—during meetings that lasted two to four hours.
“It was rough to watch,” Tate said.
The consultants told their hostage audiences that companies struggle once workers organize. They warned that Materion might never agree to a contract and that the company had the option of hiring permanent replacements for workers who strike. When workers made positive comments about unions, the consultants bullied them into silence.
“You could just feel the entire room deflate,” said Tate, who works in research and development at the plant. “They presented a worst-case scenario and then tried to pass it off as ‘this is what’s going to happen to you.’”
The union-busting efforts included a rare visit to the plant by Materion CEO Jugal K. Vijayvargiya. “‘It’s going to get better,’” Tate recalled him telling the workers. “‘We know we have problems. We’re going to fix them.’”
Organizers launched the campaign with strong support and worked hard to educate co-workers about the benefits of unions. Tate said the first few months were “beyond successful.”
But fearmongering in the anti-union meetings created tension in the plant and overshadowed the organizers’ one-on-one talks with co-workers. Unlike the company, Tate said, “I can’t command 40 people into a room.”
Corporations that refuse to give workers pay raises will happily spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on anti-union consultants like Materion used. Unions level the playing field for workers and force companies to share their profits. That’s why companies work so hard to keep unions out.
These consultants, ranging from big law firms to small companies, help to enrich corporations on the backs of workers. In the process, the consultants line their own pockets.
By banning one-sided anti-union presentations, the PRO Act would give workers who want to organize their mills, plants, offices, hospitals, colleges or other workplaces a fighting chance. If employers interfere in an organizing effort and make a fair election impossible, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would have the power to force the companies to bargain with the union.
The PRO Act also would outlaw other odious corporate scare tactics and give workers new ways to fight back when employers violate their rights.
Companies fire, threaten, discipline or otherwise retaliate against organizers in nearly a third of union drives. After the organizing effort at Materion failed, the company tried to pressure Tate, telling him it could fire him or dock his pay because it lacked paperwork related to a short-term disability claim he filed months earlier.
The PRO Act would impose hefty fines on companies that retaliate against union supporters. That’s an important change. Although retaliation is illegal now, companies do it all the time because they face no real penalties.
The bill also would require the NLRB to go to court to seek the immediate reinstatement of workers who are victims of retaliation so they don’t have to sit at home—without incomes as the bills pile up—waiting for their cases to slowly work their way through the NLRB bureaucracy.
In addition, the legislation would give workers the right to personally sue their employers for violating their labor rights.
These provisions are critical. Grassroots organizers like Tate stick their necks out for co-workers. When companies try to punish organizers for fighting for a voice in the workplace, they also send a message to other would-be labor activists.
Companies regularly tell workers—just as Materion did—that they might never get a contract after joining a union or that they might be permanently replaced during a strike. The PRO Act eliminates both threats. It would speed bargaining by requiring mediation or even binding arbitration, and it would outlaw the hiring of permanent replacements for striking workers.
Unions built the middle class, and the contracts they negotiated for members even set wage and safety standards for unorganized workers. As union membership fell from about a third of American workers in the 1950s to about 11 percent today, income inequality soared.
Now, public appreciation for unions is on the upswing. More and more workers want to organize so they can have a voice in their workplace and build brighter futures. Even workers in traditionally non-union fields, like higher education and technology, seek union representation.
At the same time, however, corporations try harder than ever to keep unions out of their workplaces. Paying workers less means more money for CEOs and shareholders. So they undercut organizing efforts with scare tactics that riddle workers with doubt.
The PRO Act finally would protect workers from the threats and mind games of corporate bullies.
Unions serve workers. Companies don’t.
Materion’s CEO promised big change to the workers in Elmore. “What has the company done since the vote failed?” Tate asked. “Absolutely nothing.”
Tom Conway is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.