US union busters land in UK

The shadow of European interference still dominates in the media despite the recent appearance of US ‘union busters’

The TUC has a theory about why unions have been losing so many recognition campaigns of late: American union busters are operating here in some force.

Preposterous? Well no, actually. The companies who hire ‘union avoidance’ consultants tend to either deny their involvement, or admit merely to seeking help with ‘communication issues’. But with the manner and scale of recent defeats (unions sometimes get fewer votes than they have members), it is possible to detect the mephistophelian touch of the consultants: the slickly choreographed strategies, the orchestral sense of timing, the crescendos of hostility.

A typical consultant-aided anti-recognition drive might go like this. First, get managers to act all friendly towards the union by engaging in earnest discussions with officials about what unionisation might mean. The consultants can then get to work on ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of frontline supervisors – those with day-to-day influence over workers. This is known as ‘business literacy’ training: maintain that a company would lose customers if there was collective bargaining; argue that unionised companies operate less efficiently; imply that jobs would be on the line if the union gets a foothold; then hammer home the vastness of ‘the union-free advantage’.

Literate at last, it is time to wallop the union with a change of tack. Use selective promotions of union members and pay rises to sap the appetite for representation and to make the union appear untrustworthy. If there is a convenient pretext to sack a bothersome activist and disguise the motivation, now might be the moment (a few thousand to settle an unfair dismissal claim is a snip).

Next, begin a process of meetings. Workers should be called in for individual briefings with supervisors about the company’s position and there should also be a series of mass meetings with presentations from managers. To go with the meetings, the company should produce leaflets, posters, T-shirts and videos (lots of ‘one company’ stuff – ‘don’t let a third party come between us’, ‘keep the dinosaurs out’, etc).

Here, the consultants really come into their own. They collect several years’ worth of ‘AR 21s’ – the union’s annual return to the Certification Officer, the body requiring unions to submit accounts – to discredit their enemy. Useful bits to highlight include the general secretary’s pay and chauffeur-driven car juxtaposed with cuts to the representation budget, the loss of members, and the fortune spent on conferences.

Next, get hold of a union rule book. It often contains anachronistic clauses from the days of the closed shop – things like how members cannot change jobs without union approval. They can be printed on posters under the banner: “Can you believe this union’s rules!”

Finally, depending on circumstances, it might be worth organising an internal ballot of a workforce – separate from a formal Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) ballot – just to ‘test the feeling’ among employees. The company should by now be able to win it comfortably. If so, the union may well back off. But if not, the company can trumpet the results as if it was run by the CAC, or use it as collateral to win an actual CAC election. And remember, the company line should always, always, always be: ‘It is entirely up to our employees if they want to be members of a trade union.’

Of course, there may be a touch of sour grapes in union complaints of unfairness. After all, the unions themselves are not above a bit of propaganda. But the fear of consultants is quite reasonable.

According to a paper by two US academics,* unions win ‘significantly fewer’ elections if employers use consultants. In the US, there are 3,400 recognition applications a year, and some three-quarters of targeted employers will hire consultants. The UK’s recognition law was derived from the US National Labor Relations Act, but so far there have been relatively few applications – just 347 since 2000.

What is interesting in the UK context is just how alive ‘us and them’ appears to be. Traditional distaste towards collective bargaining seems to be hardening in places into an outright refusal ever to countenance it – and among some surprising employers, too.

One of America’s main ‘Labor relations consultants to management’, The Burke Group ( – which disavows the operation template outlined above – lists a few UK companies among it clients, and they are not just subsidiaries of US multinationals. Calorgas, Virgin Atlantic and T-Mobile – all of whom either recognise unions in sections of their organisations, or have parent companies who do – have used the consultancy.

T-Mobile’s exertions to avoid the Communication Workers’ Union and Connect are particularly striking.

T-Mobile is wholly owned by Deutsche Telekom whose ‘social contract’ (translated from the German) reads: “Deutsche Telekom recognisesÉ the right to collective negotiationÉ[and] commits itself to open and trusting co-operation with democratically legitimised employee representatives on the basis of a constructive social dialogue.”

A spokeswoman from T-Mobile says the company “neither encourages nor discourages its employees to join trade unions”, and argues that union membership and recognition for collective bargaining are quite separate.

I suggest to her that this position lacks credibility, as recognition helps build membership, and the company’s rationale for hiring US consultants is to avoid recognition thereby undermining membership. “That is your interpretation,” she replies.

The UK’s recognition law is four years old this year. With unions deploying US organising strategies, and employers responding with Americana in kind, it is strange how Europe’s baleful influence over our employment culture seems to hog all the headlines.

* Changing to Organize: A National Assessment of Union Organizing Strategies by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Rob Hickey was presented at the Institute for Labor and Employment Research Conference on Union Organizing, UCLA, May 2002.

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