The Multinational Monitor

March 15, 1986 - VOLUME 7 - NUMBER 5


Corporate Campaigns

The labor movement in the United States today confronts challenges unlike those of any other era. Industries that once dominated the world market are increasingly threatened by stiff competition from manufacturers overseas. Congress has responded to foreign competition by floating legislative initiatives designed to protect U. S. manufacturers from foreign business.

Over the last decade, organized labor has been unable to halt global shifts in production.

Workers who staged militant battles for workplace gains in the 1930s cooled their militancy in exchange for union recognition and the steady increase in the standard of living that accompanied U.S. prosperity following World War II. In turn, the tacit bargain struck between labor and industry enabled U.S. corporations to further increase their hold on the world market.

But by the mid 1960s, heightened competition from overseas and a steady increase in prices of primary resources from the Third World started to shrink the profit margins upon which both industry and labor depended.

In order to remain competitive in the international market, U.S. corporations have turned to low-wage workers to produce goods at a lower cost than is possible in the United States.

The impact of international competition on workers in the United States has been felt directly as plants close nationwide. Nearly fifty textile plants were closed in 1985 alone, and workers in at least twenty more have suffered lay-offs. Companies throughout the electronics industry, including Control Data, United Technologies, AT&T, and Texas Instruments, have either shut down U.S. plants completely or cut back operations. In the automobile industry, General Motors and Ford have both shifted labor-intensive operations to Mexico.

Within the United States, corporations have used the threat of relocation to force tax breaks and subsidies out of financially-strapped towns and communities, and concessions from workers.

Ironicallv. the post-war success of the union movement in obtaining high wages and good benefits for workers has hampered the ability of organized labor to overcome threats to worker security todav. Workers have lost the identity they once held as a social, political, and economic class.

Nowhere is the diffuse identity of labor more evident today than in voting patterns of workers. In 1980, forty-one percent of union households voted for Ronald Reagan. By 1984, despite the AFL-CIO's earl v endorsement of Walter Mondale on the Democratic ticket, forty-five percent of union households voted for Reagan.

The current social and political divergence of workers has had the predictable effect of blurring the identity, and thereby weakening the strength, of the union movement as a whole. The labor union today is accepted as an appropriate vehicle to bring workers to the bargaining table at contract time-but little more than that.

In order to come to terms with labor's changing face and a hostile economic climate, many international unions have turned to a policy of concession and compromise as the sole alternative to plant shut-downs and membership loss.

Many rank and file union workers, however, are eager to create community-based coalitions to counter company demands.

When meatpackers at the Geo. A. Hormel Company in Austin, Minnesota, decided to challenge a policy of concessions endorsed by their parent union, they picketed shareholder meetings of the state's First Bank Systems, which owns Hormel stock.

Seeking to counter the threat of a shutdown, workers at the 3M plant in Freehold, N.J., called on singers Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson for help in publicizing their plight and began a boycott of 3M recording tapes.

Faced with the union-busting tactics of their employers' alliance, representatives for over 10,000 cement workers across the United States took their cause to Europe to rally support for their unions.

Each of these examples illustrates that workers today are looking for new ways to protect their rights and stem the tide of labor's losses over the last twenty years.

An important part of labor's new and more comprehensive strategy involves corporate campaigns.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of a corporate campaign was the textile workers' fight against the J.P. Stevens Company in the late 1970s. Since then, the corporate campaign has been tried many times with varying degrees of success. It was officially endorsed as a bargaining strategy by the AFL-CIO in February, 1985.

Central to the corporate campaign is the concept of coalition building. Community groups, environmentalists, business leaders, and policy-makers for different reasons may all share the workers' interest in targeting a company. By forging alliances with these groups the union broadens its base of support thereby strengthening its hand at the bargaining table. Other tactics which can be used in a corporate campaign include:

  • Stockholder Actions - Churches and other union allies own stock. By sponsoring shareholder resolutions, activists can bypass management and reach owners of a corporation directly. In addition, demonstrations by coalitions at annual company meetings can generate adverse publicity for the company.
  • Consumer Boycotts - While boycotts rarely affect a company's bottom line, they have proved to be important tools for generating publicity. By linking a company's product to corporate abuses, workers create a powerful threat to a company's image.
  • Legal Recourse - Although the Reagan administration has succeeded in hamstringing the National Labor Relations Board, company's that violate worker rights can be challenged by claims under the National Labor Relations Act. In addition, legislative initiatives are a forceful means of bringing workers grievances into the realm of public debate.

This issue of the Monitor looks at three examples of how corporate campaigns are being used to meet the needs of organized labor today.

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