Late last August a hard-fought campaign by the United Auto Workers to organize 850 workers at the Saint-Gobain Abrasives factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, was coming to a head. Facing harsh attacks and management claims that forming a union would endanger benefits, union organizers maintained an upbeat tone, challenging the company to a debate (“It’s the American way”). Workers at the long-established factory, now owned by a French multinational, had rejected three other union drives in the past decade, but they had grown disillusioned with management’s failure to live up to its promises, and the large committee of union supporters had won over many doubters. Nevertheless, veteran organizer Richard Bensinger worried that the escalating pressure of mandatory anti-union meetings between supervisors and individual workers could whittle away the union’s narrow lead in the final week.
So he persuaded popular local Democratic Congressman James McGovern to send a pointed letter to employees criticizing Saint-Gobain’s tactics. McGovern called the company’s arguments about lost benefits “ridiculous” and pointed out that, contrary to company assertions, federal labor law did not prevent a debate. “The laws are structured in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for workers to organize,” McGovern advised, adding that “if it were me, I’d vote to unionize.” A few days later, the workers voted–406 to 386, with eighteen additional challenged ballots–in favor of unionizing. McGovern’s words had boosted morale and thrown the company’s anti-union drive off balance. In such a close election, Bensinger said, “we would not have won if he hadn’t done it.” McGovern downplayed his importance. “I got involved in this effort because the deck was stacked against the workers,” McGovern said. “Everything I did I thought was justified. I’d do it again.”
Incensed at its loss, the company, advised by Jackson Lewis, a notorious anti-union law firm, filed unfair labor practice charges against McGovern for speaking out on the issues. Ultimately, as the union campaigned for Saint-Gobain to “respect democracy,” the National Labor Relations Board upheld (by a 2-to-1 vote) the regional officer’s decision that McGovern had not improperly interfered with the election. But the company’s audacious challenge to the free-speech rights of a member of Congress was an effort to curb the labor movement’s growing and effective use of political clout on behalf of workers’ rights to organize and negotiate contracts.
From the rough-and-tumble labor battles of the late nineteenth century to the organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s, the success of unions has always been linked to the support–or antagonism–of elected officials, with their powers over police, legislation, contracts and public opinion. The one area where unions have made serious gains in recent decades is the public sector, partly because elected officials authorized collective bargaining and did not fight unionization (though twenty-seven states still do not have comprehensive legislation giving public workers the right to bargain collectively). But with some notable exceptions–like Bobby Kennedy’s marching in the 1960s with California farmworkers–few political leaders in recent decades have taken strong public stands with workers who are trying to organize. That reflects rising business influence on Democrats, but it’s also because labor unions haven’t been demanding that elected officials help workers organize, despite a long-term decline in union representation that has contributed to both rising economic inequality and declining Democratic political fortunes. Indeed, unions involved public officials in less than 14 percent of a large sample of organizing campaigns from 1998 to 1999, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “We spend so much time propping up Democratic politicians, and then we let them off,” said Bensinger, who was formerly the AFL-CIO’s organizing director. “We don’t let the workers off. We force them to take a courageous stand. Why shouldn’t the politicians take a courageous stand?”