The Lost Art and Skills of NLRA Union Organizing

Ideas and Issues

May 29, 2021

Pearl River

More than twenty years ago, a friend and comrade, still plying the trade with SEIU, who had worked with me in the 1980s, bemoaned the fact that none of the union organizers coming into the field then had any knowledge or experience in working under the legal rights and wrongs regime of the National Labor Relations Act. He and I had lived through countless campaigns and elections under the NLRB in nursing homes, hotels, food service, cleaning, warehouse, and manufacturing sectors, winning and losing our fair share along with the rest of our colleagues.

The Act was unforgiving and listed hard towards employers, but lacking leverage in the deep South, our options were few and none other than organizing under the Board. Others, facing a similar reality, with different opportunities, allies, union density, and political environments, advocated campaigns premised on deep investments to win direct recognition outside of the NLRB. Going hard down that path developed one set of muscles and experience, leaving the other to atrophy. Somewhere embedded in his observation was the request for me to be available to take a call from organizers who might be forced to work under the strictures of the NLRB.

I was reminded of that conversation while talking to Phil Cohen on Wade’s World. In my case, I was the Maytag repairman, and my phone didn’t ring. With thirty years of experience in the South, largely the Carolinas, for just the same set of reasons he was still on-call to SEIU’s Workers’ United locals, formerly part of UNITE, the textile workers union. His phone rang “past the 11th hour,” as he described it, to staff out a union decertification effort by the giant carpet manufacturer, Mohawk Industries, in North Carolina. The union in that plant in its various iterations back to the days of ACTU and the ILGWU, its predecessors, had maintained a collective bargaining agreement there for eighty years. Times, management, and the odds changed, and suddenly there were in a fight for survival, and Cohen was the hired gun pulled into try and save the day. It was this campaign and his experience with the workers and managers there, as well as his own union and the agents and lawyers for the NLRB, that drove him to put the experience on paper in his new book, Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill: An Organizer’s Memoir.

It’s a riveting tale with plenty of heroes and villains and a good snapshot of the war in the trenches in winning and maintaining unions, as odds weigh ever more heavily against workers in the modern economy and continued erosion of rights under the NLRA that accelerated in the Trump-era. The Mohawk campaign has a sort of happy ending. The NLRB ruled the petition was tainted and employer-driven, which would normally block the election and lead to the petition’s dismissal. The National Right to Work Committee and their lawyers try to appeal the decisions to make new law around blocking decerts, but lose in his case, although they win later in another case. There’s a lot of inside baseball, but it’s a good people story as well.

We couldn’t avoid talking about Amazon and the recent Bessemer, Alabama contest, which is now what most people know about the terrible battle of union elections. We both try not to second guess organizers on the ground, but we couldn’t avoid scratching our heads about what seemed to be open-and-shut unfair labor practices. Regardless of the Trump board, it was clear both of us would have tried to block the election.

As an old veteran, Phil underlines the importance of full investigation and presentation of the cases to the NLRB, which he sees as his specialty, the difference maker with Mohawk. His book ends with hopes for the future. I asked what the situation was now. Unfortunately, he reported that the plant is closing this summer, another victim of the pandemic. Sadly, the environment is so bad, too much of this story is a snapshot of how dinosaurs fought in prehistoric times before fertile fields and swamps for workers and their unions turned into deserts and death.

P.S. Phil is offering his book at the author’s 40% discount at Check it out!