Reeling from workers’ gains during the New Deal and Civil Rights areas, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell penned a memorandum that became the playbook for American corporations’ domination over workers for the next five decades. He wrote that Big Business was under attack, and to counter what was becoming a more even distribution of gains for labor, industry must “assiduously cultivate…political power” and use it “aggressively and with determination.”
Corporations across the country heeded Powell’s call. They waged a war on workers’ ability to strive for living wages, safe working conditions, jobs free from discrimination and harassment, and recourse for labor violations — all centered around workers’ right to organize into unions to exert their rights as a collective voice.
The battle was both waged at the workplace — where employers have systematically denied workers’ legally protected employment rights and violated laws protecting organizing — and in the courts, where corporations have used strategic litigation and their intimate involvement in the judicial selection process to whittle away the rights of workers.
Unions: Correcting inequality
On average, CEOs are paid 399 times as much as a typical worker. From 1978 to 2021, CEO pay rose by 1,460 percent. In that same time period, average worker pay rose just 18 percent. A driving factor for workers who join unions is ensuring the profits of their labor are shared more evenly. Union members make about 10-11 percent more than their non-unionized colleagues.
Unions not only work toward greater economic equality between workers and owners, but they bring parity in pay between the average worker and traditionally marginalized groups. When union member wages rise 10-11 percent higher than their non-unionized colleagues, the change nearly halves the wage disparity of unionized women and non-unionized men and reduces the disparity between Black, Latino, and Native American union members and non-unionized white workers by about a third.
Unions also work to provide better benefits, health care, workplace conditions, job security, and a voice for workers in how a company operates — in other words, democracy in the workplace. Unionized workers have a 90 percent access rate to employer health plans, while non-unionized workers’ access rate is just 68 percent. Beyond access rates, unions strive to increase the quality of health care plans in collective bargaining agreements. The additional health benefits extend to safer workplace conditions, additional job security for workers when they are injured, and representation against employers when topics of health and safety arise at work.
When workers identify a hazard at a worksite, they can notify the union to act as a collective force to rectify it, rather than fearing the consequences of raising concerns as an individual, which can include harassment, intimidation, and job loss. If workers refuse to work in unsafe conditions, the union is there to protect them. When there is a dispute on the extent of a workplace injury, the denial of an injury occurring at the worksite, or a firing based on the inability to work due to an injury, members can rely on their union, which retains attorneys to protect the workers. In short, unions provide safer workplaces.
Though unions provide much needed resources to workers and the desire to join a union is high (an estimated 58 million non-unionized workers would vote to unionize if they had the chance), only 273,000 wage and salaried workers were newly covered by a union in 2022. The reason for this? Money and power. Gains for workers cut into the profits of the owners and management of companies, and as such, corporations have waged war on workers’ right to organize.
Battle at the workplace
The first place employers fight unionization is the workplace. U.S. employers spend nearly half a billion dollars a year on hiring union-busting consultants. Largely, these firms work as anti-union marketing agencies, teaching employers the best tactics to dissuade workers from unionizing.
One way employers advocate against unionization is through captive audience meetings. Employers are legally allowed to force workers to attend such meetings and listen to arguments on why workers shouldn’t join a union. In these meetings, employers cannot discourage workers through promises or engage in threats or investigations. But employers often break those rules because labor laws are so weak that penalties usually amount to a slap on the wrist or infrequently, another union vote — after employers have quelled unions’ momentum.
Even when a union does win, employers regularly do not bargain in good faith, as the National Labor Relations Board — the agency that oversees unionization — can largely only command employers back to the bargaining table. This can be seen with Starbucks, as it has been their tactic combatting the 318 stores that unionized across the country over the past several years.
Battle in the courts
Corporations also fight unionization in the courts. The first step in their playbook is controlling who becomes judges.
Political action committees (PACs) — companies’ main vehicle to influence elections — have ballooned to 8,555 active PACs, which spent over $12.9 billion in the last election cycle. This political spending, which flows to candidates ranging from the House, to the Senate, to the presidency, is an important influence tool for corporations because the president nominates and the Senate confirms federal judges.
Industry has used the leverage that campaign contributions provide to repeatedly intervene in the judicial nomination process. One tactic: giving the president and the Senate a short list of judicial nominations through an organization known as the Federalist Society. This conservative, anti-union organization’s recent picks make up six of the nine current Supreme Court Justices and 43 of the 51 appeals court judges nominated by former President Trump. In recent years, these judges have created anti-union judicial precedent, as can be seen in the recent cases Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters and Janus v. AFSCME.
The Janus case is a prime example of how corporate special interests and front groups transform anti-union grievances into binding labor law. Mark Janus sued the union that covered employees at his workplace, saying that required public-sector union fees violated his First Amendment rights and were therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court found in his favor.
Following the ruling, Janus was hired as a senior fellow by the Illinois Policy Institute — the same conservative, anti-union organization that had financially supported his suit and multiple appeals leading up to the Supreme Court. In this way, corporations have done their best to buy the judicial system in two key aspects.
The Road to workplace democracy
For true democracy to enter the workplace, unions must use much more of their operating income to fight the anti-union onslaught from Big Business by focusing on organizing efforts, including hiring more organizers and engaging in more organizing campaigns. This fight can be supplemented by public support for union-friendly politicians on the local, state, and federal levels. Once elected, these officials must be held accountable for writing and voting on new pro-union labor laws. Only then will the tide of justice start to swing back to workers, and therefore, We the People.