WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Bill Knight - June 17

Macomb, IL – Seventy-three years ago this Spring, goons hired by the Ford Motor Co. attacked labor organizers at a walkway at the Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich. Thereafter known as "the Battle of the Overpass," the May 26, 1937, afternoon attack on United Auto Workers leaders including Walter Reuther and women supporters made national news.

These days, attacks on labor are more subtle, if just as insidious, as recounted in Robert Michael Smith's 2003 book From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States. However, the greed and lust for power behind such violence lives in other ways - even protected somewhat by loopholes in the law.

Besides company hoodlums, employers for decades relied on private muscle and "guards" from agencies such as the Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts. Modern versions of these strikebreakers include Vance security and Wackenhut and law firms such as Chicago's Seyfarth, Shaw and Nashville's King & Ballow.

In the 1930s, the Wagner Act and the New Deal eased outright aggression a bit, and later labor-law reforms such as the Landrum-Griffin Act were supposed to eliminate such violence.

Critic, author and University of Illinois-Chicago professor Jamie Owen Daniel writes, "The union-busting industry [changed] from one that relied on open thuggery to the more subtle legal strategies and practices we encounter today. These practices may not be as bloody, but they are just as pernicious."

Blackjacks to Briefcases author Smith, a professor at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, wrote, "A new breed of union-busting agencies - labor relations consultants' - began offering their services to the business community, armed with advanced degrees in industrial psychology, management and labor law."

In Michigan 73 years ago, union-busters were armed, too, and inflicted serious injuries, including breaking the back of one activist.

The legendary Reuther later remembered, "Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more..."

Local police at the scene largely ignored the violence. Law enforcement remains similarly unmoved about anti-worker attacks today, although the setting is more often in the workplace, bargaining table or courtroom than in the streets.

Smith pored through documents from struck companies, their union-busting hired hands, and testimony from executives and rank-and-file strike-breakers, and he clearly showed history's violent armed guards on picket lines, spies and agents-provocateur who disrupted unions, and those who - after federal law legitimized labor relations - manipulated the law to serve anti-worker clients despite the law's intent.

For instance, Landrum-Griffin used to make employers disclose their use of labor relations consultants, but enforcement weakened to a toothless requirement that consultants report activities only if they directly contacted employees. That not only permitted secrecy but encouraged it, ensuring that lawyers and consultants operated in the shadows instead of the open.

After reading Smith, it's easy to wonder about what the public might do if a political party employed consultants to discourage voting, or the Chamber of Commerce sponsored workshops on how to pay women less than men, or company lawyers held "captive meetings" with managers on how to violate job safety, workers comp, tax, environmental or other laws.

Considering Congress, one doesn't wonder why the proposed Employee Free Choice Act languishes in a culture and Capitol Hill where gutless representatives are intimidated by lobbyists and campaign contributors.

Anti-worker actions - even violations of the law - are conducted by those who assault people with motions instead of clubs, and beat employees with illegal threats instead of brute force.

As Smith showed, the results are the same, and until regular Americans impress upon lawmakers to recognize the consequences of anti-labor sentiment, little will change from that bloody battle on that day in May long ago.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University