Union Do's: 'Smart Solidarity.'(anti-Corporate Campaigns)

By Press, Eyal | The Nation, April 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Union Do's: 'Smart Solidarity.'(anti-Corporate Campaigns)


Press, Eyal, The Nation


Thank God we have a system of labor where there can be a strike. Whatever the pressure, there is a point where the working man may stop.

Abraham Lincoln, 1860

Fifteen years after Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, strikes in America have dipped to a fifty-year low, a mere one-eighth the level of two decades ago. If you think that business leaders no longer worry about the power of workers to take direct action, though, think again. With laws already on the books allowing temporary and permanent replacements, with the threats of downsizing and corporate flight further casting shadows over labor militancy, business leaders are nevertheless pressing ahead to win one added advantage over their employees. They now want Congress to ban organized labor's most effective recent tactical innovation--the anticorporate campaign.

Often called a "corporate campaign," its objective is to hit powerful and highly diversified companies on all fronts by investigating their affiliates, scrutinizing their environmental and investment records, organizing consumer boycotts, submitting shareholder resolutions, complaining to regulatory agencies and doing whatever else it takes to pressure management into a fair settlement.

On September 21 of last year a host of prominent business leaders--including Thomas Donahue, president of the American Trucking Association; Gary Hess, head of Associated Builders and Contractors; and Paul Huard, a senior vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers--gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Washington to demand that Congress take immediate steps toward making these campaigns illegal. "This kind of reprehensible conduct has no place m America and is totally beyond the bounds of the time-honored traditions of labor-management relations," thundered Donahue. A month later, Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan obliged with the first of what may be many hearings on what is to be done. "We must make sure that the American workplace is a constructive arena in which the employee and the employer can work together," said Hoekstra, who chairs the House subcommittee that is investigating the matter.

Although labor's record with anticorporate campaigns is mixed (where they are used to the exclusion of or as a substitute for mass action they can demobilize the rank and file), what's worrying business now is a versatile and relentless offensive directed out of La Place, Louisiana, by United Steelworkers Local 9121 against Bayou Steel and RSR, one of the world's largest secondary lead smelters.

"This issue has reached the ideological boiling point for business," says Ed Keyser, representative of the Steelworkers, corporate campaign department. Keyser began helping the Steelworkers in 1993, when the Local struck Bayou, rejecting a contract proposal that called for no pay increases for six years and gave management the freedom to contract out any job. Since then the Steelworkers have attacked Bayou every which way--which is where RSR comes into the story. The two companies are linked through Howard M. Meyers, C.E.O. of Bayou Steel and also the chairman, chief executive and president of RSR's holding company, Quexco. With the help of environmental consultants and community groups, the Steelworkers have documented numerous environmental and worker safety violations at both RSR and Bayou, generating information that has been useful to activists seeking to block RSR from opening new factories. As a result of its aggressive campaign, the Steelworkers are being sued by both RSR and Bayou under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

In RSR's case, the suit charges the Steelworkers with "interfer[ing] with RSR's business contracts and business relations" by spreading "fraudulent misrepresentations and disparaging statements" to "third parties" in the United States and Europe.

The real story is that the Steelworkers discovered a pattern of violations at RSR plants and did not keep quiet about it. …

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