From their plush offices in Malibu, the consultants of The Burke Group
are raking in millions from a single, specialized
service: helping other companies prevent their workers from unionizing.
Brought in by corporate customers from General Electric to K-Mart to
private hospitals, the Burke Group's hired guns are masters of
misinformation, negative public relations, bureaucratic
stonewalling and every other means of thwarting a union drive within the
law - sometimes, just barely so. The firm has been accused many times of
intimidating and harassing union activists, has had formal complaints filed against them with the National Labor Relations Boards and has been involved with anti-organizing campaigns that were found to have violated federal labor regulations . Still, business is good. The company has
not only successfully kneecapped scores of unionizing drives, but has
even reversed successful ones: "Over 60 clients are again union-free,"
their website boasts.
With a full-time staff of dozens, including consultants fluent in
Spanish, Filipino, Creole and several dialects of Chinese, the Burke
Group may be America's leading union-busting firm. But it's far from the
only one. Hundreds of other consultancies and law firms also offer
"union-avoidance" services. It's a booming market: some three-quarters
of all US companies targeted by union organizing drives hire such help.
All told, the anti-union trade is estimated to pull in
over $200 million per year.
That's one of the reasons why union membership and power have been
steadily eroding in this country - and with them, living standards of
average Americans. Fifty years ago, nearly a third of all American
workers belonged to unions; today it's barely one in 10. It's no
coincidence that economic inequality has increased apace. Today, the
distribution of our national wealth is more lopsided that at any time
since the Great Depression. While income for executives and others at
the top of the scale has shot skyward, average workers' salaries have
barely kept pace with inflation - and many are finding their jobs,
health coverage and retirement prospects in ever deeper jeopardy. Only
60 percent of businesses provide health insurance to their workers, down
from 69 percent in 2000. A recent survey found that almost a third of
Fortune 500 companies have already or will likely soon stop paying
health insurance premiums for their retired workers. Even many of those
currently employed under union protection are seeing their pay and
benefits slashed. General Motors employees were recently saddled with
billions of dollars in health care costs formerly borne by the company.
Major steel and airline companies have won court permission to scrap
their labor contracts altogether.
Meanwhile, for those at the top, things have never been better. A
generation ago, the average chief executive of a big corporation made
about 40 times what the average worker did; now its nearly 400 times as
much. Perhaps as remarkable is how much the pay of those perched even
several steps down the corporate
ladder has similarly swollen. According to a study by a leading
executive compensation consulting firm, major US companies are today, on
average, paying chief financial officers over $3 million per year; top
legal officers, $2.2 million; and human resources executives, $1.6
million. Twenty years ago, the typical salaries for such positions
barely cracked six figures.
It's not an accident that unions are steadily losing members and power:
it's in large part because of a deliberate, aggressive strategy - which
includes the deployment of high-powered outfits like the Burke
Group - by corporate interests who make more money when their workers
make less. It will take no less of an effort by what's left of the labor
movement to turn the tables on them.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Burke Group employs lawyers and has been fined for violating federal labor laws. In fact, it is a consultancy that does not employ lawyers. And while it has provided advice to firms conducting anti-union campaigns that were later declared by the National Labor Relations Board to have involved unfair labor practices, the Burke Group itself has not been found to have committed such practices, nor has it been fined. We regret these errors.