John Sheridan is a union buster. At least that's how union organizers see him. He prefers to see himself as a management consultant in "proactive employee relations." For the past 33 years, when employers have wanted to thwart union organizing drives, win contract concessions, get rid of unions, or take preemptive action to head off even the potential of a union, they've called on Jack Sheridan.
Sheridan--a tall, stocky, gray-haired baseball fanatic with a silky smooth, easygoing manner--learned his trade at the knee of the Depression-era founder of contemporary antiunion strategies. Over the years he has trained more than 150 other antiunion organizers--a large chunk of his competition in this shadowy but substantial industry. As the contemporary dean of antilabor consulting, Sheridan directly or indirectly has played a major role in the decline of organized labor.
In the decade after World War II unions won 70 to 80 percent of their union-representation elections. Now they win on average slightly less than half--and conduct far fewer elections to begin with (they've plummeted by nearly half just since 1980). Two academic studies estimate that increased management resistance--which consultants both exploit and encourage--accounts for as much as half that decline. Without a strong influx of new members, especially in a time of industrial turmoil, factory closings, and general corporate "restructuring," union membership has dropped to around 16 percent of the work force, from its peak in the mid-50s of 35 percent.
Yet Sheridan sees himself as a political liberal who believes that a healthy labor movement is essential to any society and worries that the U.S. labor movement has lost not only its strength but its direction. Once a union organizer himself, he thinks it's possible for labor and management to have constructive relations--but the unions and union leaders he admires are not management toadies, not those who strike sellout "sweetheart" deals. They're leftist militants like Dennis Rivera of the aggressive and inventive New York hospital union, Local 1199, and the United Electrical Workers, still independent from the AFL-CIO after being purged in the 50s for refusing to oust its popular communist leaders.
Sheridan, now 58, also says he's ashamed of many of his fellow antiunion organizers, who engage in illegal and unethical tactics to bust unions. His hero is Saul Alinsky, the radical prolabor and community organizer, who--like Sheridan--developed his organizing prowess in Chicago. Sheridan describes Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1980--one of the turning points in management's deepening hostility to unions--as "stupid and unfair."
Although Sheridan sometimes muses about a new line of work, consulting to the newly independent unions in the former Soviet bloc or even returning to helping unions in this country, he continues to advise management on how to avoid or get rid of unions. And though he appears to set higher standards of ethical behavior for himself than most of his colleagues do, both a former protege and union organizers who have faced him claim he has engaged in some nefarious tactics to beat unions.
An Irish kid who grew up in South Shore, Sheridan in 1956 was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Chicago, supporting himself by teaching part-time and helping other students write their papers. Six months after getting help from Sheridan on his thesis about a local labor union, one such budding scholar called Sheridan to tell him about the "revolutionary" work of Frank Darling, president of a 40,000-member union of electrical-industry factory workers (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1031). Darling was hiring young college grads as organizers, replacing many of his "up from the ranks" staff. (Darling had fired many of those staff, Sheridan says he later discovered, in an effort to shift attention and blame away from himself, anticipating a Senate investigation of pension-fund mismanagement.)
Although anything smacking of labor or economics "was like speaking Greek" to humanities student Sheridan, he got one of the organizing jobs. He says he and his two buddies were successful union organizers, virtually living out of their cars as they moved from shop to shop. It's easy to see how Sheridan would have succeeded. Disarmingly friendly and charming, he has an average-Joe quality despite his literary sophistication (in conversation he's apt to refer to such writers as Edmund Wilson, and he has an interest in--and underwrites--contemporary plays). Even for work he prefers athletic shoes and sports attire when he can get away with them.
Much of Sheridan's IBEW organizing consisted of raids on the left-wing United Electrical Workers, such as in his first campaign at the now-shuttered Stewart-Warner plant on Diversey. Wearing little flags on their lapels and preaching "Americanism," he and his fellow organizers frequently won their raids but sometimes met their match in aggressive UE organizers, despite the general "Red menace" political climate, which favored IBEW.
Sheridan also helped Darling maintain control of the workers in the big west-side local, whose union hall was said to have the world's longest bar. If a member rose to make a point during a business meeting in the darkened auditorium, he says, "Our job was to hit them with the [spot]light" to intimidate the worker. He also helped Darling run his annual holiday show, which featured top-name entertainers and such exotica as pink-dyed, sequined pigeons trained to fly through the auditorium and land on a Christmas tree. One year Sheridan and his colleagues had to do the training.
Sheridan says he began to grow disillusioned with Darling's operation and frustrated that there seemed no chance to move up. He came to realize that the workers he and other organizers supported during the typical organizing drive--"three months of hell and intimidation by their boss"--saw them, not Darling, as their link to the union. "In our success we became a threat, because the union is a political organization. So very quickly it was clear to us that our days were numbered, and they were even more numbered the more successful elections we had." After two years on the job, Sheridan says, Darling called him and his fellow hotshot young organizers to the union office and--without giving a reason--fired them. Sheridan began considering his options.
An attorney who'd also been pushed out of the union by Darling told Sheridan no employer would hire a union organizer; he'd have to decide once and for all whether or not to "cross over." Although this lawyer had been fired in his first month from Labor Relations Associates of Chicago for scraping the fender on the boss's Cadillac (new employees there served as general chauffeurs and gofers), he recommended that Sheridan check out the firm.
Labor Relations Associates (LRA) had been founded by Nathan W. Shefferman, whom Sheridan calls the "founder and fountainhead of the American labor-relations business." In the early 30s Shefferman was depressed about the loss of his job, and from 1931 to 1934 began piecing together readings of great philosophers and poets on the radio, as the anonymous "Friendly Voice." After the 1935 passage of the landmark National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), which established workers' legal right to join unions and act collectively, Shefferman worked briefly for the National Labor Relations Board, which administered the law. Lessing Rosenwald, son of the builder of the Sears, Roebuck empire, was a fan of the "Friendly Voice" and hired Shefferman away from the NLRB in 1935. Shefferman became Sears's first employee-relations director, not exactly an important position at the time. His mission: Keep Sears free of unions.
Since the early days of the industrial revolution, capitalists have fought any attempt by workers to organize for improved wages or working conditions. The law usually condemned such efforts as illegal conspiracies, and the early unions were often of necessity secret societies. In the United States, employers' fight against unions has been longer and more virulent than it has been in most of Europe, with the exception of fascist regimes.
The distinctiveness of American business-labor relations stems in large part from this country's culture of extreme individualism. Unlike the European aristocracy, with its traditions of responsibility for the whole of society, the American elite (especially after the Civil War) celebrated the mythic "self-made" and unrestrained businessman, the embodiment of American liberty and the source of all social wealth. Although businesses might temporarily combine to fight unions or workers, in general they preferred individualistic competition with each other (until the strongest could consolidate power as a monopoly or trust). Certainly they rejected any European-style general accord between business and labor. As American unions developed, they were both more fragmented and less political than their European counterparts, giving American unions a cast that has made them especially vulnerable to management attacks and the economic turmoil of recent years.
Although skilled workers often wielded some power in early factories, by the early 20th century the dominant pattern was that foremen ruled over factory floors like petty dictators, and the work was organized to minimize worker control over production. Management often dealt ruthlessly with unions before the New Deal period. Spies infiltrated fledgling unions. Goons and thugs beat up organizers and union sympathizers, who were fired as soon as they were identified. Courts readily issued injunctions to outlaw union activity. But in the 1920s a few employers began to argue that more benign tactics, ranging from creating a "corporate family" to establishing profit sharing or higher pay, could also keep out unions, consolidate management control, and increase profits.
When the Wagner Act passed and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was established, there was a wave of successful union organizing. And most companies fought back with the old regimen of spies, thugs, and firings.
But Shefferman had a different idea, Sheridan says. He argued (and many union organizers agree) that workers vote against bad managers, not for unions. To stop unions, Shefferman said, companies should get rid of bad supervisors and managers--which first of all meant admitting that some of them were bad because they mistreated employees. "While many employers and their associations were busting unions with spies, informers, and force [as famous congressional hearings conducted by Senator Robert La Follette documented], Shefferman preached the art of persuasion," Sheridan wrote in a tribute to his mentor.
Shefferman, described by Sheridan as a temperamental "hunched gnome" who was an avid reader and loved doling out favors, was no saint: he invented the "vote no committee," Sheridan wrote, which "required the manipulation, by remote control, of a group of workers within the workplace, to run their own, anti- or counter-union campaign, which not surprisingly, usually turned out to be in the best interests of management." Just in case a union came close to organizing Sears, Sheridan says, Shefferman had ready in his safe a supply of buttons, cards, signs, and even a contract to create an "independent" union.
Shefferman also made "use of techniques like infiltration, intimidation, and vandalism," a fact that came out during a Senate investigation in the late 50s, as Donald R. Katz noted in his history of Sears, The Big Store. The Senate inquiry also revealed that Shefferman had purchased furniture from Sears at a discount for Teamsters president Dave Beck's home. Although that gave the appearance of a payoff, Sheridan believes the purchase was the innocent by-product of a friendship between Shefferman and Beck's two sons.
Around 1939 Shefferman set up Labor Relations Associates as an independent firm: Sears's Rosenwald had decided to "share" Shefferman with his business friends. At a meeting at the private Standard Club in Chicago, Sheridan says, "25 to 30 mainly Jewish businessmen," including such eminent figures as Joseph Block of Inland Steel, each put up around $25,000 to help Shefferman launch his firm.
Shefferman's opportunities expanded still more later. In 1947 a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which greatly restricted labor rights and for the first time guaranteed employers the right not simply to express their opinion that they didn't want their employees to join a union but also to actively campaign against one. Management types see this as simply a guarantee of employer free speech; but unionists, who insist that the National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to decide whether they want a union on their own without intervention by their employers, say it's comparable to the United States heavily influencing Mexican elections.
In any case, the law opened the door for Shefferman and other antiunion consultants. While a few big employers were deciding that they could live with unions (and even use them to maintain order), others--like IBM--were deciding that they could forestall unionization by paying close to union wages and managing employee relations more carefully. Still others continued to fight unions or flee to the south or overseas when employees unionized. Shefferman, argues his student Sheridan, gave employers more confidence that they could prevail.
In 1958, at age 25, shortly after he was fired by the IBEW, Sheridan crossed over from organizing for labor to organizing for management. But for the first three months his assignment was simply to write about his experience at the union; then he began accompanying Shefferman, picking up his ideas during his first year. Finally he was sent to consult an employers' association formed in Selma, Alabama, at a time when the civil rights movement was unfolding in the south. (The lead antiunion organizer there had been sent back to Chicago for sleeping with a plant manager's wife.)
The novice Sheridan organized for management in nine different union elections over a year and a half involving largely black work forces and white employers. By Sheridan's account, "The people we represented wanted to use racial arguments to win elections, and I wouldn't let them. I would characterize my efforts as getting people not to do stuff, to restrain them." For example, he says he persuaded one employer that threatening to have a car dealer repossess the car of a union sympathizer might backfire, and he tried to convince managers they'd have a better chance of keeping the union out if they stopped calling their workers "niggers."
Sheridan's success in Selma made him "a rising star in a firm that was unraveling." Publicity from the Senate investigation was making Shefferman too hot, and corporate clients--including Sears--abandoned him. By 1960 all but four of Shefferman's staff of 25 to 30 consultants had fled. Sheridan was on his own.
"There I was without a job, a baby on the way," Sheridan says. "I took a job driving a Yellow Cab until I could figure out what I was going to do. I got a letterhead printed up, a post-office box, a phone number, and an answering machine and started in business." As a junior associate he had few connections, but one day a paper company in Michigan called him to help stop a Teamsters organizing drive. For the next four years he drove cabs in between antiunion jobs, once fuming at an arrogant, rude bank lawyer who gave him a nickel tip for a long ride and toting lots of luggage. "I stood outside and said, 'This bank is going to be a client of mine someday,'" Sheridan recalls in his typically bemused, laconic fashion. "And they were." Now he claims 200 banks are on his client list, including major institutions like Chicago's Northern Trust and New York's Chemical Bank.
The 60s and 70s were "palmy" for the antilabor consulting business, when Sheridan and his firm might conduct 100 or more antiunion campaigns each year. Growing numbers of employers, including those in industries like hospitals and nursing homes that had rarely faced union drives before, decided to fight their employees' attempts to organize. At times Sheridan had nearly three dozen consultants working for him, and he estimates that at least 155 of his employees went on to consult on their own after learning the trade with him. One of the most prominent--or notorious--alumni offshoots, still based in the Chicago suburbs, has been variously known as 3M, Modern Management, and Modern Management Methods.
The basics of fighting a union organizing drive are simple and standard, yet there are wide variations in execution, particularly in how far consultants push the limits of the law and common decency. Although in Shefferman's day consultants often talked directly to workers--and some consultants still do--Sheridan's main innovation was making frontline supervisors the shock troops for management's campaign. Unlike union organizers, such "management organizers" are with the workers day after day on the job and have great potential to reward, intimidate, and persuade.
This innovation was also significant because it allowed the consultant to stay behind the scenes. He could avoid making himself the focus of union attack. And after 1959, anyone engaged in "persuader" activity for management had to file reports with the Department of Labor. For one thing that requirement led many lawyers to grant a greater role to consultants, and Sheridan is credited with forging new links between consultants and promanagement attorneys. And since many consultants--including Sheridan--claimed no direct "persuader" contact with workers, they rarely filed the reports anyway.
Many union busters deluge prospective union members and their families with letters (and now even videotapes), sometimes sending along with paychecks special messages that just skirt the legal prohibitions against using promises, threats, coercion, and intimidation to discourage union membership. Although spying on workers is illegal, supervisors and consultants often collect files of personal information on workers to better understand their weak points. They get clues about workers' support for unions, at times by asking about their ethnicity or their involvement in civic groups or tenant organizations--there are legal prohibitions against management questioning workers directly about their union sentiments. Consultants must know labor law, but many use their knowledge to violate the spirit of the law if not the letter (or at least they try not to get caught too often). The lower the status of the workers, union organizers say, the more likely it is that consultants will flagrantly break the law and resort to heavy-handed tactics.
Sheridan argues that the key person is the supervisor. "If you get the supervisors and motivate them to talk to the people, you win," he says. "They're from the people. They live with them." Yet management needs time for its supervisors to either persuade or intimidate, as the consultant advises. Workers and union organizers may have started their work and signed up a majority of workers before management even knows there's an organizing drive. Luckily for management, the law provides nearly endless opportunities for its lawyers to delay elections and challenge election procedures, especially regarding who is to be included in the potential bargaining unit. To union organizers, this is a clear case of justice delayed, justice denied.
Sheridan recognizes how crucial these delays of several months are to his work. "If a petition [to hold an election] is filed today, and the election is in two weeks," he says, "we'll lose it." A two- or three-week election period "will bring the sleazebag operators out," Sheridan said. "In three weeks the only way to turn it around is to scare the shit out of people."
Like nearly every other consultant, Sheridan uses his literature and the supervisors' one-on-one talks with workers to denigrate unions. The most effective messages, he contends, are that unions can't guarantee security and could mean a loss of the workers' jobs; that unions bring strikes, violence, tension, and general "unpleasantness"; that workers may lose much of what they now have if they vote for a union; and that they will have to pay the union dues and may face special assessments and fines.
Robert Muehlenkamp--now assistant to the new reform president of the Teamsters and before that the aggressive head of organizing for Local 1199, the hospital union--argues that union busters are the ones to consciously heighten tensions and create unpleasantness, hoping the workers will associate the union with stress and conflict and a "no" vote with relief from them. In recent years, he says, the conduct of union busters has been "much less subtle, much more gross. They openly threaten and fire people, openly say [to the workers that] it doesn't matter if you win, because we won't deal with you. There are no pretenses."
Increasingly Sheridan has supervisors make the pitch that unions are simply ineffectual--though he also rues the injustice to workers resulting from weakened unions. "Part of it is criminal," he says. "People are being screwed out of their profit sharing and pension funds, and unions can just talk" and do nothing. While the beating many unions have taken over the past decade isn't the picture of strength, Muehlenkamp contends that union busters want to create an overwhelming sense of the futility of organizing: that even if the union wins, management will make life miserable for members and refuse to sign a contract. Indeed, in the years after World War II unions won first contracts after nearly all successful elections, whereas in the 80s they signed contracts in only slightly more than half the cases where workers overcame management campaigns and voted for union representation.
The record indicates that management is not content simply to delay elections, bad-mouth unions, and plead for another chance to be good without the interference of a supposed "third party." Between 1955 and 1980 there were huge increases--by a factor of six to eight--in the number of charges brought against employers for unfair labor practices, in the reprisals against union supporters, and in refusals to bargain in good faith, according to Harvard Law School professor Paul Weiler. And the proportion of those charges sustained by the National Labor Relations Board doubled during that time. Increasingly management was resorting to dirty tricks, and on a grand scale. Since union surveys suggest that 85 percent of all elections involve consultants, it's clear most union busters draw from some bag of dirty tricks.
Most ominously, employers increasingly resort to firing union supporters, Weiler concludes. It is illegal to fire people because of their union sentiments or activity, but the penalties are slight and it often takes years for workers to win either back pay or reinstatement to their jobs. Meanwhile the chilling effects on unionization have been achieved. From the mid-50s to 1980, Weiler reports, the number of workers fired for union organizing and reinstated--representing only a portion of prounion workers penalized--increased tenfold. In 1980 roughly 1 worker was illegally fired for every 20 workers who voted for a union--and in 1985, 1 out of every 10, and firings occurred in roughly a third of union elections. These figures are approximations, disputed by promanagement conservatives; but the trend is clear and its scale awesome.
Sheridan maintains that this is not his style. "There are people in my business that I'm not proud of and that I wish weren't called labor-relations consultants," he says flatly. "Illegality is unnecessary. Even if the laundry list the [NLRB] says is illegal were legal tomorrow, I wouldn't do it--promising, threatening, coercing, intimidating, spying, interrogating. They would still be the wrong way to run an election campaign from a tactical and ethical point of view. If you do that stuff and leave, the client is stuck with the blemishes of that inappropriate behavior. People don't forget that, so we don't do it. But there are people in my business who do that and lots worse than that." One consultant he knows hired a management employee to blow up a utility substation, planning to blame the union for sabotage. Fortunately the real saboteur was caught.
In recent years there's been a resurgence of antiunion security firms, like Vance International, Wackenhut, and Nuckols and Associates. Their forerunners were the infamous Pinkerton agents, who broke strikes and heads for employers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today such guards--dressed in dark jumpsuits and frequently armed as well as carrying video cameras--act as provocateurs, as one operating during the New York Daily News strike admitted to a New York Times reporter. There are also many solo antiunion organizers, especially in the south, who persevere with the old-style anything-goes tactics. S. Lichtenberg & Company, owner of two medium-size textile plants in southeast Georgia, fired or permanently laid off nearly 200 prounion workers, violated a wide range of federal employment and safety laws, and delayed signing a contract for more than three years after the largely black work force voted strongly in 1988 for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. In some cases, Sheridan says, employers "want you to be that fascist, right-wing, beat-the-people-down, give-them-nothing kind of thing." Those employers typically see him as a "marshmallow," he says, and hire some more hard-line firm.
Sheridan claims he is as much an "advocate of working people" as a defender of management. He takes satisfaction, he says, in getting rid of a tyrannical boss or a supervisor who is sexually harassing employees (in the process, of course, removing an incentive to unionize). "Initially I thought the union was the way to do that," he says. "But I learned real fast that you can do it from this side, too. It may take more time. It may take more bureaucracy and red tape, but you can do it, and you don't have to be on the union side."
Since many of Sheridan's clients are banks, insurance companies, and other big, profitable service businesses, he has often had the luxury of pursuing comparatively benign union prevention, such as encouraging an employer to offer child care, a health club, or a benefits fair (where workers can pick from among an assortment of benefits). He also conducts frequent employee surveys so that managers can head off serious discontent.
At times Sheridan does organize on behalf of workers or supervisors against some member of upper management, but always ultimately for the sake of the company keeping out a union. In a Michigan hardware plant, he insisted on getting rid of the son of the chairman of the board, who happened to be an autocratic supervisor who was provoking workers to unionize. A union organizer, describing a hospital campaign that Sheridan lost, notes that Sheridan expanded the role of the head nurses and flattered them, turning strong union supporters into management advocates. That campaign included much traditional antiunion propaganda (and much flirtation and apparent philandering by Sheridan's men among the nurses), but it's also true that the universally disliked head of the hospital was forced out by the board of trustees during the campaign--possibly a Sheridan recommendation.
In yet another current case, some of the supervisors were quietly sympathetic to the union cause. After finding out what was troubling them, Sheridan got them some clerical staff, sped up a long-delayed performance review, and got a disliked superior transferred. He turned the supervisors around. Other union busters might have applied heavy pressure on the supervisors to get them to fight the union, Sheridan admits, but he says he doesn't do things that way.
In what he regards as one of his stranger, tougher cases, Sheridan confronted a union-organizing effort that seemed especially resistant to his tactics. As he probed, he discovered that five executives had been passed over for an outsider in the company's search for a chief executive. These disgruntled execs had instigated and helped to protect a union-organizing campaign as a way of striking back at their aggressive new boss. Sheridan says he neutralized them and eventually defeated the union.
Yet Sheridan might have accomplished little or nothing--or might not have been on the scene at all--if the specter of unions hadn't been there to scare management. He also wouldn't have made such a good living. Crenlo, Inc., an Ohio firm, reported paying Sheridan $114,000, or $166 per worker, in 1979-80 for fighting a United Auto Workers organizing campaign; the union won, but then Sheridan forced it out on strike. Later Crenlo hired him to help try--unsuccessfully--to decertify the union, using as a front a company-financed antiunion group of workers. Union organizers estimate that top consultants like Sheridan now command $1,500 a day in fees.
Does it really pay for management to hire consultants? Several studies have concluded that simply hiring a consultant makes little difference in election results, although having consultants means that delays, intense supervisory involvement, and discharge of prounion employees are more likely. If consultants are involved, the union is also much less likely to win a first contract. But another academic study concludes that intense management opposition does reduce union victories, and that when illegal tactics are used unions win less than one-tenth of their elections. Sheridan himself claims a win rate around 96 percent without using illegal tactics (although he also has told the Bureau of National Affairs "that assertions of 98 percent win records are highly suspicious, and probably incorrect").
Sheridan maintains that most of what he knows about organizing against unions he learned while he was an organizer for unions: "Bottom line is, you've got to listen to what the rank-and-file worker says, talk to them in their language, and pay attention to them, not just make promises."
He also insists that his principles haven't changed. "My view--which sustained me throughout my career, whether on management or union side--is that I can't stand unfairness to workers or people of color or people who are not educated. I cannot stand it, whether it's dished out by the company, the union, the government, or whomever. To me, what I've done in my life is to effectively intercede on behalf of people who are getting screwed by somebody above them and give them power to work out whatever their problem is--it might be pay, harassment, discipline, unfairness.
"Now the only difference is in approach, as to how you get this done if you're on union or management side. I might add, and this should be obvious to anybody, that the ally I have in getting management to do some of the things they don't want to do--because if they had wanted to do them they would have done them before we got there--is the union, union pressure, pure and simple. Clever workers figure out real fast that their best ally is a strong union outside the door, sort of chained up like a snarling dog, but they're also clever enough to know that if they keep it out there, they don't have to pay dues." That approach may have proved too clever by half: without members there's no snarling union to keep management in line.
Indeed, Sheridan argues that without the pressure of Congress and unions for "three decades of legislative achievement" in regulation of employment--"all sound, valid, needed," he says--there would also be no human resource departments in big corporations attempting to manage relations with employees.
Some corporations find they must improve working conditions and offer such features as day care and health clubs simply to attract good workers, Sheridan argues; but such changes are rare and often superficial responses to workers' needs. The continued high turnover in Sheridan's favorite venue, the banking industry, is strong evidence that most workers don't think a few frills can compensate for low pay and regimented work. Silicon Valley computer firms are famous for their amenities for designers and technicians, but the Service Employees have been fighting recently to organize those companies' custodial workers, who are poorly paid and regularly subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation.
Without strong unions, of course, there may also be no work for antiunion consultants since, in Sheridan's analogy, they're like the mongoose and the cobra. Reagan's influence was so devastating to unions--and so many companies simply adopted extreme hardball tactics on their own, without outside advice--that the antiunion consultant business plummeted in the 80s, especially after what Sheridan calls the "outrageous and unnecessary" firing of the air traffic controllers. Today the bulk of Sheridan's business is "preventive" labor relations--attitude surveys and recommendations to avoid discontent and organizing--because there are simply fewer union-representation elections.
Nobody knows how many consultants there are, since it's such an unregulated and ill-defined field. Sheridan says there are no more than 100, but several reasonable estimates put the number at closer to 1,000, with a total yearly revenue between $100 million and $250 million. In the past decade more and more management-oriented law firms have undertaken the nuts-and-bolts antiunion activity they once left to their consultant colleagues. In 1983-'84, Sheridan says, he almost closed up shop. These days volume is down, but the cases are often more complicated and lucrative, such as advising companies on how to contend with unions during corporate takeovers.
Sheridan is not simply worried about the decline in his business. "I'm enough of a realist and know enough of history to know what happens to countries without a labor movement," he says, relaxing in his River North high-rise apartment, his two large Mitsubishi television monitors surrounded by books--Library of America classics, contemporary novels by Eco, Doctorow, and Wolfe, and nonfiction works like Chicago lawyer Thomas Geoghegan's recent, anguished prolabor Which Side Are You On? "I've always been afraid of the complete obliteration of the labor movement. Look at Hitler. A strong labor movement is part of the loyal opposition, but I just don't see any today."
Instead he sees phenomena that would have been unthinkable when he started out: workers willingly crossing picket lines, employers calling in permanent replacements to get rid of strikers. "If I'd said in the 60s [to employers] that if you lose a union election, and workers go on strike, you could permanently replace them," Sheridan says, "they'd have said 'You must be crazy.'" Now four-fifths of employers in one survey said they would permanently replace strikers. What accounts for the change? "Was it just the air traffic controllers?" Sheridan responds. "Yes. Reagan set a tone.
"Take the impact on American workers of seeing 15,000 admired, respected 'techies'--which is what [the air traffic controllers] are, and America is watching these nice-looking people with their white shirts on and ties, nice-looking kids, they live in the suburbs--and all of a sudden their asses are fired [for striking]," Sheridan says. "They don't have their jobs. Just that alone had a chilling effect on unionism. I'm sure organizers heard people say, 'Gee, I'd really like to, but look what happened to those guys.' Then the organizer could say all he wanted--till the cows came home--that they didn't have the right to strike but you do. But that wouldn't go very far. A lot of companies [now] don't use consultants. They just got tougher on their own."
Sheridan contends that new worldwide competition also drives much of the antiunion animus here. Yet other industrial countries have experienced nothing like the attack on labor there's been in the United States, and in many of those countries both wages and the rate of unionization are much higher. Also, as Sheridan discusses his clients (rarely by name), it's clear that he recognizes how many have been monumentally mismanaged and are loaded with managerial perks. Even when they want his help pushing concessions on workers, such companies may resist his advice to trim managerial overhead and the kind of perks, like the corporate jet, that workers bitterly resent when they're asked to take pay cuts.
So why do managers consistently attack labor? Management always insists that its greatest worry is not increased costs but reduced flexibility, that unions "won't let us do what we want," Sheridan says. At other times it's a matter of strong ideology or prejudice: "We told a client 'Why do you want to throw your union out when they're a get along, go along union?' They said, 'Well, our boss doesn't like unions.' But it's truly possible to have a union and have a very harmonious working relationship."
Ultimately, however, the answer is simply that "it's easiest," Sheridan says, to get along without unions. "It's always easiest to cut the work force, cut the pay." Yet such cuts may hurt not only the workers but also the company's prospects and society as a whole.
"I've seen well-run unions," Sheridan says. "I believe that a constructive, positive, productive relationship is possible between a company and a union. There are unions run honestly and democratically. Yet it's not an article of faith that workers have to have a union. Good relations, increasing productivity, better-quality production can be done in union and nonunion shops." He chides unions for wanting to take credit for all improvements, and irrationally opposing quality circles--labor-management teams that discuss work quality--and other employee participation plans. Yet many employers do use employee-involvement schemes to keep unions out. Also, some recent research suggests that such participation is more productive in unionized shops than in nonunion ones (and that traditional unionized factories without quality circles can be at least as productive as nonunion factories with them). In any case, in unionized workplaces workers have an independent voice and some collective power. They do not have to trust in their employer's beneficence.
But when it's suggested that there may be advantages in the way unions institutionalize workplace improvements, Sheridan scoffs that "contracts are worthless." Yet if that's true, as the radical Industrial Workers of the World argued earlier in this century, it would seem to strengthen the argument that workers can't trust management and must organize to defend themselves.
Ironically Sheridan criticizes the labor movement most of all for losing its sense of mission and its passion, for straying from the fundamentals of improving workers' conditions and organizing aggressively. "Until you do something about paychecks or health care or working conditions," Sheridan says, "[workers will ask] 'What have you done for me?' I'll take what Sam Gompers [early president of the American Federation of Labor] said, 'Organize or die.'" Too many union leaders, he says, are dull bureaucrats simply trying to maintain aging organizations. It's too easy to blame consultants like himself, he argues, for the decline of organized labor.
And in many cases he's on target. Organizing--always the heart of the labor movement--may be harder now, but it's even more necessary. Yet only a handful of unions pursue it aggressively. According to one study, only 1.6 percent of the union staff in California were organizers in the late 80s. Nationally, according to insider estimates, unions commit at most 8 percent of their budgets to organizing. Despite massive losses of membership and revenue, the labor movement as a whole has grown wealthier (from its financial investments), according to one recent study, but the unions don't spend their money to organize.
Sheridan says that in one recent battle a wealthy union wouldn't pay for the union organizer to make a short airplane trip for a preelection rally of union supporters. The union lost that battle. Another organizer, Sheridan recounts, had a solid majority of members signed up at a major corporation, a lot of good issues, and "a company that had shot itself in the foot on credibility." His local union was short of money, but the international was rich. "Yet he did his campaign with spit, gum, and baling wire, with little or no help from above," Sheridan says. This man needed money for staff, events, doorbell ringers, and modern technology, including videos and computers. Yet "the bastard was sitting in a motel room, all by himself with a cheap Radio Shack word processor trying to organize a major company in an election with 1,000 voters," Sheridan says. "I felt sorry. I really did. What the hell resources do you have to draw on?"
Labor union leaders "have got to make up their minds," Sheridan argues. "They've had about a 15-year identity crisis. What do they want to be? Lobbyists? A political party? The very term 'movement' is interesting because it's no longer descriptive. Do they want to organize? Sometimes it seems the very idea of organizing is iniquitous to some unions--it's just more people to take care of, or politically it's a problem.
"I respect idealists," he continues, talking about militants like Dennis Rivera and the United Electrical union leaders. "I respect people who have passionate beliefs. I may disagree with them or their approach, but how the hell can you not respect somebody who has zeal--passion about what they believe in--and lives out their own credo? That was part of the legacy of Walter Reuther to the United Auto Workers, but [current UAW president Owen] Bieber is light-years from what Walter Reuther was."
Management's aggressive measures, unions' strategic weakness, a hostile political climate nationally, and economic turmoil have all taken their toll on unions. Consultants have fed on these conditions, often acting as catalysts for management hostility, often making management more effective in opposing unions. In the process, many union busters have trampled on workers' democratic rights and seriously hurt the disadvantaged, vulnerable members of our society, precisely those people Sheridan says he wants to help. Although the evidence suggests that Sheridan does not resort to the sleazy, harsh, and violent methods of some of his colleagues, a former protege and unionists who've faced him say that he often plays hardball himself, and overstates the gentleness of his own strategy.
Marty Levitt trained as a union buster with Sheridan from 1969 to 1970, worked at Modern Management for a time, then went off on his own. Now he's repentant and telling tales in a book he's just finishing, A Dirty Business: Confessions of a Union Buster, and in an HBO movie, a fictionalized version of the book.
"Sheridan is a kind of legend," Levitt says, "but I don't want to put him in esteem. He was the tumor that started benign and became malignant. He was the father of it all." Levitt mentions in particular the "symbiotic relationship between consultants and attorneys. [Sheridan] would go to the prestigious law firms and say he could do what they couldn't or wouldn't do." Levitt says that Sheridan, who once described himself as doing "the Lord's work" by making companies better, preached that the essence of the consultant's job was to maintain control yet be invisible.
According to Levitt, Sheridan has perfected a form of "corporate terrorism": first he intimidates the supervisors, then he turns them loose on workers whose every foible has been carefully researched. "The supervisors learned that, whether it was truthful, lawful, or moral, their job was in peril and they had better do what we say. The Sheridan technique was imposed most effectively in the one-on-one ongoing interview with the supervisor, where the consultant and supervisor went over a unit of employees.
"We had information on all these subordinates on charts. Sheridan would drill us to learn everything we could learn about these people. Those charts were lethal. They had more down on some people than those people knew about themselves. They would show union sympathies and reasons why, but also particular character defects and weaknesses--anything to defuse, neutralize, or terrorize them, if they had a drug, domestic, alcohol, credit, or zipper problem."
Whatever supervisors' own sympathies were, Levitt says, they were pressured to make the war against the union their priority. Levitt claims that Sheridan told him not to worry about stepping over the legal line as long as he could "put a legal face on our work," but Sheridan insists that this is "absolute nonsense," that it's unnecessary and ineffective for antiunion consultants to violate the law.
"We tried to avoid firing people if we could," Levitt says. "We tried to set up somebody with a skeleton in his closet. If the guy had to go and the grounds of discharge were weak, we told the company 'Don't worry.' Even if a complaint is filed, a year at least goes by before a hearing, and the company would offer a token settlement--'blood money,' Sheridan called it--to drop the charges. Firing was a last resort, but it was certainly one that was utilized."
The president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers--Sheridan's old union--testified before Congress in 1979 that Sheridan was paid $300,000 to defeat an organizing drive by predominantly Mexican American workers at the GTE-Lenkert plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He said the company sent spies to union meetings, interrogated union supporters in a "regular and flagrant" way, and illegally fired 18 union supporters, who were later reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board. Supervisors were threatened--and one was even fired--for not showing enough zeal in investigating and pressuring workers. (Sheridan says the NLRB official investigating the case was biased and a friend of the union organizer. He also says he quit working for this company because they wouldn't follow his advice.)
"Jack Sheridan was the master of myth and manipulation and architect of the lie," Levitt asserts. "The lie being that the whole antiunion drive is going to create a kinder, gentler company. The employer puts on a happy face and goes through the Sheridan manipulations, but rather than clean up the act--which is not within the personality of 80 percent of the clients represented--they'll create a holocaust, a form of housecleaning. Sheridan will allege he comes in to create employee participation and supervisor training, but he'll complete more detailed profiles of potential leaders of the next union drive and weed them out, fire them, or get them to quit."
Levitt does acknowledge that Sheridan has polish compared to much of the rest of the business, which "has become cruder and rougher" as it's expanded: "It went from brass knuckles and holsters to briefcases and back to the brass knuckles and holsters."
Sheridan and his disciples have won often because of "the overwhelmingness of the campaign," Levitt says. "The goal is not just to divide and conquer but to overwhelm and saturate. Whether it's the 'Dear employee' letter [promising to treat everyone beautifully] or the captive meeting [antiunion rallies at the workplace] or the fireside chat or some seed planted on the shop floor, the people are so worn down that nobody wants to go through anything like it again." Union busters and their clients have two other advantages over union organizers: far more money and greater access to workers. Levitt says, "I had a captive audience a minimum of eight hours a day. The union's access to people is very limited."
But if unions repeat their efforts with a particular company, Levitt says, their chances go up, because the union-buster campaigns are now such cookie-cutter operations, repeating the same messages and tactics. Unions, which used to be vulnerable for the same reason, are now likely to be a bit more imaginative. "Back when I was with Sheridan," says Levitt, "we considered ourselves more artistic. The first step was working over the supervisors, then it was just an onslaught to the employees, starting with union finances, union rules, and union corruption. The common thread was stay on the offensive, never defend anything, attack the union in a half-truthful and malicious way, and discredit the people promoting the union."
Levitt quit the antiunion consulting business after more than 15 years, even though at one point, he says, he was earning $250,000 a year. He says he had become an alcoholic and was plagued by marital and financial problems. "I felt a real need to make amends," he says. "What turned me around is that the people who work hardest are the backbone of the country and victims of most political and corporate abuse, and they really have no recourse but collective bargaining. Somebody had to come forward and expose the rawest form of terrorism sanctioned in this country."
In response, Sheridan contends that the dirty tactics Levitt describes simply reflect Levitt's approach to union busting, not his own. In fact, Sheridan says, he fired Levitt precisely for violating house rules and engaging in "dirty tricks." He argues that Levitt is clearly not a reliable source. He says that the "terrorism" Levitt describes is unnecessary, because "we have the luxury of time. We can get the supervisor on our side, create teams. He's just waiting for somebody to tell him the dos and don'ts: here are all the things you can say and can't say." Sheridan says he promoted the one-on-one sessions between supervisors and employees not to circumvent the law but because they're more effective and because he wanted to avoid union attempts to trip supervisors into breaking the law.
Union organizers continue to charge Sheridan with using unfair tactics. Last year Sheridan worked for a consortium of utilities that own the Palo Verde nuclear plant near Phoenix, Arizona. He was hired to block an organizing drive by the utility workers. He proudly cites a video he produced extolling the family atmosphere at Palo Verde and pointedly compares his own subtle approach--he never even mentioned the union--with the cruder antiunion pitch a competitor used on a video in a decertification drive at Nordstrom's department stores.
But Bernardo Garcia, the Utility Workers organizer at Palo Verde, says that overall Sheridan's campaign was anything but subtle. A few months before their plant-wide organizing drive, for example, the plant's security guards voted in favor of their own union and began bargaining for a contract. Under Sheridan's guidance, Garcia says, the company demanded a 16 percent wage cut for the guards, "which was preposterous and designed to scare everyone else. It had nothing to do with ability to pay. It was bad-faith bargaining.
"Why, just as they had a union, did they need the wage cut? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was really going on. They wanted to force the guards to strike, and then replace them. They were so confident that their plan would work that they hired 200 replacement security workers in case the guards went out on strike." But the guards did not strike, and the company was stuck paying for 200 extra guards for many months--costing it many times the value of the wage cut it had proposed.
"The whole thing was a ruse to scare people," Garcia says. "I think it was effective. It did do damage to our camp. There was a lot of intimidation. They pretty much came out and told employees "Look what happened to the security guards,' implying everyone would get a wage cut if they voted union."
Under Sheridan's direction, Garcia says, the company forced a delay in the election and spent as much as $8 million (with $2 million or more going to Sheridan, according to company insiders). Ultimately the union lost the election. Besides intimidation, according to Garcia, the company distributed leaflets that implied Garcia had committed financial improprieties in his local.
And did the employer make lasting reforms? Garcia says he's now flooded with calls from people angered at how the company's reorganization has virtually frozen their pay--much as the union had predicted. "Many of these employers are so arrogant they're our best recruiters," he says, confirming Sheridan's own line. "During the campaign the employer tends to treat employees better, but after the campaign that is over. They talk of new grievance procedures and a new open-door policy, but it doesn't really change at all."
Who is the real John Sheridan--the benign adviser on preventive labor relations, or the founder and often practitioner of what Levitt calls "a dirty business"? Sheridan says he has no regrets, that his principles are intact, that he still sees himself as crusading for the little guy. Maybe by comparison with others in his business or with the managers he advises he can make that case. However tough he may be sometimes, most union busters are far cruder. Of course, simply from a pragmatic point of view, Sheridan's niche--blue-chip white-collar firms--requires that he maintain a clean image.
In the course of his career he has undoubtedly cleared away some crummy supervisors and managers and persuaded some businesses to become more humane. This is what he says he is most proud of doing. Yet he could have done none of that without the threat of unionization. And the thrust of his career and of the careers of his disciples, who often are more ruthless than he approves, has been to weaken organized labor. How much better off might all those workers have been if they'd had a union, and not simply John Sheridan smoothing some of management's rough edges? The house of labor has crumbled for many reasons, including unions' own shortsighted behavior, but the union busters--or "management consultants"--have played a significant role too.
Sheridan thinks that if there is to be a revival of the labor movement, it will take a "deep depression, where people get hungry, where things really get bad. We'd have to have the reemergence of something that looks like liberalism. Where is that fire? Where is that liberal fire that will create the soil within which labor will grow? That's where the labor movement was born. It was born in passion, in blood, in hunger."
Worked into a passionate state himself, Sheridan seems to yearn for that rebirth of labor and that liberal fire. He wants it for his own sake as much as for workers or the downtrodden. Yet he has spent a lifetime quenching the embers in those who wanted a voice at work, who wanted to make their lives richer, safer, more secure, and more satisfying.
Sheridan remains a fundamentally contradictory fellow. "I've gotten to the place where I feel sorry for the unions," he says. "My partner and I spend more time critiquing the failure of their campaigns. We think maybe there's a place for us to go afterwards, helping the poor bastards out. I worry that the labor movement will totally peter out, and there won't be any loyal opposition to keep management on its toes."
Maybe the time has come for Jack Sheridan to "cross over" to the labor side of the street again. It certainly would provide a greater, if less lucrative, challenge. Then perhaps a few of the contradictions between his avowed principles and his actions would be resolved. Then he could join his heroes--those passionate fighters like Saul Alinsky who lived out their credos--on their side of the barricades.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.