In The News
Who’s behind the boycotts? Turns out unions are not
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted May 12, 2011
Responding to a series of media inquiries, leaders of the state AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council flatly scorned the idea that the AFL-CIO has concocted any boycott in Wisconsin aimed at the policies of Gov. Scott Walker.
“If we had a boycott,” noted an amused Sheila Cochran, the COO of the Milwaukee council, “trust me, we would be shouting it from the rooftops.”
The requirements and rules are stricter on unions than on corporations – not just on boycotts but on every action, from how they support candidates, how they report money spent, how they organize and protest, when they set up picket lines. If anything the requirements escalate in a boycott since procedures and approval were established since 1909 by the trades department of the national AFL-CIO and now can only be imposed when endorsed by the AFL-CIO Executive Council. (we told you it was tough.). Only then will union members be urged to boycott a business or don’t buy -- which means not use the service or buy products.
Currently there are many hotels around the nation on the official “Don’t Buy” list, including some in Chicago, but only one company that does business in Wisconsin: Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns stations here and has refused to deal with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the industry hallmark in technical broadcasting.
What’s been happening in Wisconsin has gone far beyond the control or even initiation of organized labor, and one consequence is this constant talk of boycotts that unions never started and often spend hours knocking down.
Fury over Walker’s proposals has long moved beyond curtailing the rights of public workers. It has spread beyond unions, public and private, and now encompasses a lot of citizens who never thought twice about unions or politics. If that weren’t true, the Republican objects of recalls would not be so anxious and backpedaling on Walker proposals they long knew about – and the GOP wouldn’t be rushing to pass Walker’s bills before they lose control of the legislature. Ironically, this has heightened the right wing attack on the AFL-CIO, since they’d like to pretend it’s only unions that are upset.
But actually, unions are about jobs and negotiations, which is why they can remain calm and focused in marches and rallies. Its leadership knows the difference between words and sticks and stones.
If you want to see this clearly, look at Georgia Pacific. It is owned by the Koch brothers, notorious in hatred of unions and funding Tea Party and untraceable campaign finance networks. But the Kochs love making money so they need a good workforce, in this case the steelworkers they inherited. Unions will expose the Koch rhetoric and hypocrisy, but “in America, people are free to be stupid,” chuckled Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the state AFL-CIO.
In late April, when the state AFL-CIO quite publicly pulled its money out of M&I bank, one journalist told me that, despite denials, “The court of public opinion sees this as nothing other than a boycott.”
He’d better not say that out loud around the Journal Sentinel newsroom. It would destroy the operators of PolitiFacts, who spend much of their time digging out obscure charges few have heard of but probably accept as true …. especially when publicized by JS. Those journalists spend a great deal of time declaring such views “False” or “Barely True” – in other words, spitting on that “court of public opinion” they help create. So give us a few paragraphs to demonstrate the falsity of so-called “union boycotts.”
Let’s start with the busiest complaint on blogs by right-wing hacks. They didn’t criticize corporations for pasting anti-union slogans on gas pumps, but they claim unions are behind the illegal campaign to plaster anti-Walker slogans on products in supermarkets. I can’t find a place that happened; it apparently mainly targeted a sausage company and cheese company whose owners had given heavily to Walker.
But it was never a union idea – just more people upset by slash-and-burn emanating from Madison, or acting out a fantasy on the Internet. It sure kept unions busy telling overwrought members to stay away from stuff like this – and reminding them to still enjoy brats but look as they always should for the union-made ones.
Another warning to stay away – as any sort of union representative – involved those online boycott lists reflecting anger at Walker policies on Facebook and elsewhere. The call was to boycott companies that gave money to Walker’s camp. Lists were provided based on database culling.
Unions were kept quite busy warning journalists and their own members away from such ideas because such lists were scatterguns. Many companies actually give money to both parties,. Several companies on those lists actually employ unions. Others actually support union causes, and while several companies do have disgustingly anti-union policies, it is always behavior, not opinion, that prompts boycotts. Yet Neuenfeldt’s reminder that these weren’t union ideas brought criticism not just from the right but from some on the left who suggested unions should “attack" businesses that fed Walker.
There was one case where unions were understandably slow to speak up, because it started out looking quite sensible and there was considerable confusion for a few days before it became clear it was the work of “overzealous members” as one AFSMCE state official told me. What happened in a part of the state was an AFSCME field representative used his letterhead to urge area companies to put up signs indicating support of “worker rights.”
Not much wrong in that, just an expression of belief in bargaining – except the letter went further. It suggested that “neutral meant no,” that not putting up a sign of support would be regarded as a sign of opposition.
And that was over the top even if understandable. A company could have a lot of reasons not to put up a sign and shouldn’t be regarded as an enemy because of an empty window. When told what happened, the AFCME council leadership stepped in, as did Neuenfeldt in a broader statement, and made it clear to journalists and to members that this was never proposed, encouraged or endorsed by any union.
Not so the M&I bank action. It was very specific, a union protest, and it came after individuals and other unions had also pulled their money out of the bank in a public manner as a blunt statement.
But no doors were barred, no employees who gave to a political party of their choice were targeted and no union member was told to switch banks. This was specifically a clever and effective advertisement of disgust, not much different than what newspaper columnists do – or what newspaper advertisers do when they pull ads in public disagreement with editorial policy.
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO, spelled it out in a letter to M&I when she and a contingent of supporters yanked the federation’s $105,000 in funds from the bank.
Taxpayers had bailed out M&I with $1.7 billion in TARP funds not fully reimbursed as promised. Now the company said it would pay back the funds but only after completing sale of the bank to a Montreal firm. Even first-year journalists can look at the record of what happens when ownership moves to another country -- - local jobs diminish over time for obvious reasons.
And, as Bloomingdale pointed out, the TARP rules says executives shouldn’t profit until they pay the taxpayers back, yet M&I is using foreign ownership to reward CEO Mark Furlong and top executives.
"While we sacrifice and work hard to rebuild our state’s economy, you’ve set yourself up for a $24 million personal payday after the bank’s sale is completed. A $24 million payday that you bent the rules to get,” wrote Bloomingdale.
“M&I does not deserve the trust of Wisconsin’s working families.”
If a clear message equals a boycott, somebody had better tell Webster’s.