Inside Job: Union Organizing Today

4-25-06, 11:00 am

“Salting has become an instrument of economic destruction aimed at non-union companies unwilling to just hand over their employees,” reads a fact sheet by the anti-union National Right to Work Committee. “‘Salts’ try to destroy their employers,” it continues, “through various actions, including sabotage.”

While these allegations may appear to be an effort to uncoil a complex espionage effort conducted by the CIA, it is not. Rather it speaks of an innovative organizing strategy that is being utilized by labor unions more and more to counter the efforts of anti union employers.

Within the labor movement “salting” refers to the strategy by which union organizers seek employment at a non union workplace with the aim of uncovering unfair and unlawful labor practices, gaining intelligence on the inner workings, garnering support for the labor union and ultimately organizing the workplace. The US labor movement has used salting throughout its history – both the Knights of Labor and the Wobblies employed salts and many of the mass labor mobilizations during the 1930’s resulted from individuals who entered various industries to organize.

Richard Bensinger, former executive director of the AFL-CIO’s organizing department remarked on his role as an inside union organizer. “There is no better way to gain an understanding of the needs, fears and beliefs of workers,” he said, “than to work and experience an organizing drive side by side with them. During my time as an inside organizer, I played an important role in organizing workers and gained invaluable insight into the psychological and interpersonal dynamics of uniting personalities into a single voice for change.”

During the past few years the practice of salting has become important as anti union employers and union-busting firms have developed both legal and illegal strategies for denying workers their democratic right to unionize.

According to the AFL-CIO, 75 percent of employers hire consultants or union-busters to help them defeat union-organizing drives. Twenty-five percent of employers illegally fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns. More than 24,000 workers in 2000 won cases proving that they had been illegally discriminated against for engaging in legally protected union activity. In addition, according to American Rights at Work, every 23 minutes a worker is illegally fired for attempting to organize a labor union.

With less than 10 percent of the US work force enjoying the benefits of belonging to a labor union including job security, generous medical benefits, pensions and a voice in the workplace, it’s not just important, but urgent that labor unions and allies employ nontraditional means of organizing workers.

Though many corporate sympathizers (and groups which they fund, including the National Right to Work Committee) scoff at the strategy, they have thus far been unsuccessful in challenging its legality. In the 1995 landmark decision in the Town and Country Electric, Inc. case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an individual can be a company’s employee for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act, even “if at the same time, a union pays that worker to help the union organize the company.” In other words, salting is a legally protected practice.

The National Labor Relations Board, the governmental body charged with executing US labor law, has also upheld the rights of unions to hire salts to organize a work site. In 1993, in the case of Flour Daniels, Inc., the NLRB ruled that an applicant that clearly indicates that he is a union organizer “explicitly places the employer on notice that he will try to exercise his statutorily protected right to organize his fellow employees.”

In 2005 the Laborer’s International Union of North America, which represents about 800,000 construction workers used the strategy of salting to organize Advanced Contracting, a Manhattan-based, demolition company, which was notorious for resisting unionization efforts. The union placed two salts within the firm, which employed mostly immigrant workers. Within less than one week they were able to convince workers of the benefits of unionization, and get 17 of the other 18 workers to sign union cards.

While salting may be perceived as a more grassroots-oriented strategy than traditional union-organizing mechanisms, it also offers many challenges. In the article “Salting the Earth: Organizing for the Long Haul,” published in the New Labor Forum authors Carey Dall and Jono Cohen, both former salts, state:

Working in nonunion sectors usually means low pay, long hours, and horrendous working conditions. Adding the ever present stress of organizing, including the after work or weekend meetings, the constant fear of being found out and fired by your boss is enough to topple even the most stable mind. Also, finding an industry to plug into is not always easy.

One must also not ignore the cultural factor. It’s important that salts are able to relate socially and culturally to the workers in which they are attempting to organize. Unfortunately many organizers that are attracted to the opportunity to salt are white, middle-class college graduates. Lastly, it’s important that unions and other organizations that employ salts, factor in the sustainability of the effort. If the goal of the effort is to organize the workplace, unions must offer the support to maintain the effort to completion - rather-than abandoning the effort prematurely due to a shift in organizational priorities.

Despite these challenges, it is difficult for one not to see salting as a step toward socialism. Salting is important as an offensive tool against corporations and union-busting firms that unethically violate the rights of workers on a daily basis. If unions and allies are able to utilize the strategy to increase union membership and workplace democracy, another world may no longer exist as a mere possibility – it will be a reality.

--Carl Lipscombe is national coordinator for the Student Labor Action Project.