‘It’s Business, Man!’: Unions and ‘Socially Responsible’ Corporations

‘It’s Business, Man!’: Unions and ‘Socially Responsible’ Corporations

“How do you feel?” roared Jerry Greenfield, CEO and co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company that has (in the public imagination, at least) long epitomized corporate social responsibility. He posed this question a few years ago to the audience at the company’s folk music festival, held annually in mansion-packed Newport, Rhode Island. “I feel good!” roared back the Teva-and tie-dye-clad crowd. (Greenfield opens the company’s staff meetings with the same ritualized call and response.) The folk festival—featuring countercultural icons like Joan Baez and accessorized by petitions supporting legislation to “Save the Family Farm”—was vintage Ben & Jerry’s. Greenfield’s performance was designed to assure the festival’s upper-middle-class audience that Ben & Jerry’s, maker of flavors with trippy names like Cherry Garcia, is not a bunch of grim stuffed shirts in a boardroom, but a downright groovy (and ethical) little company. The skeptical observer, however, couldn’t help wondering: what happens if you don’t feel so good?

Last year, a group of maintenance employees at the Ben & Jerry’s plant in St. Albans, Vermont, found out. These workers wanted time and a half for work on weekends and for any work that exceeded the standard eight-hour day. Company policy was to pay the federal minimum: time and a half only after forty hours have been worked in a week. (This means, for example, that maintenance workers might be scheduled for ten-hour shifts on the four days following Labor Day or Memorial Day, but collect no overtime.) In early November, after months of frustrating discussions with management, some of the maintenance workers, who earn, on average, about $17 an hour, approached the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Local 300, and launched a campaign for representation.

Ben & Jerry’s fought back. Asked how the company’s anti-union campaign compared to those he’s encountered from other, less “socially responsible” firms, Local 300’s Tim Watkins, who coordinated the drive, called it “very aggressive.” Some of the campaign followed a textbook union-busting formula: management held closed-door meetings with employees who had signed union cards, and told them that if they joined the union, they’d be spending all their time on picket lines, and would be “expected to go on strike at the drop of a hat,” says Watkins. (This is untrue: unionized employees don’t go on strike unless the shop has taken a strike vote.) The union filed no unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), because, as Watkins explains, “they always stopped just short enough of illegality.”

None of this is unusual; employers fight unions every day, and they fight them unscrupulously. According to analyses of NLRB data by Cornell labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner, about a third of companies have illegally fired union supporters during elections. In this context, the behavior of Ben & Jerry’s certainly wasn’t as bad as a company’s can get.

But Ben & Jerry’s had a formidable and complicated weapon at its disposal: a “socially responsible” image. Started in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two longhairs who have been friends since junior high gym class, Ben & Jerry’s is now a multinational corporation with more than 170 stores in the United States, and has been famously socially conscious for over a decade. The company’s mission statement, written in 1988, advertises its dedication to the “new corporate concept of linked prosperity” and declares a “deep respect for individuals inside and outside the company and for the communities of which they are a part.” Through the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the company redirects 7.5 percent of all pretax profits to nonprofit organizations. The company’s best-known campaign has been “1% For Peace,” a crusade to redirect 1 percent of the U.S. defense budget to “peace-promoting projects.” (A discontinued product called the “Peace Pop” bore a wrapper that explained this, but left many questions unanswered, such as, Why 1 percent? and What is “peace”?) The ice cream is sold in dioxin-free cartons. In February, Ben Cohen brought an eleven-foot ice cream pie to Capitol Hill to protest inadequate social spending and appeared on ABC’s The View calling for cuts in the defense budget.

Ben & Jerry’s argued that its employees didn’t need a union because they had better-than-average benefits (including paid family leave and health club memberships, as well as three pints of ice cream daily). Central to the company’s campaign, too, was the argument that the maintenance employees shouldn’t be trying to organize a bargaining unit that included only themselves; all 150 workers in the plant, Ben & Jerry’s lawyers argued, should be given the chance to vote on union representation. With this objection—the basis of Ben & Jerry’s challenge to the union before the NLRB—Ben & Jerry’s appeared to be promoting democracy in its workplace. But that rhetoric was disingenuous, because the union’s support wasn’t as strong among the production employees in the plant. Furthermore, the electrical workers’ union was a logical choice for the maintenance employees because they are electrical workers. Had the production workers wanted to unionize, another union, one that had some experience in their field, would have been more suitable. In December, the NLRB rejected Ben & Jerry’s challenge and ordered the union to hold an election.

In January, the maintenance workers voted for the union, eleven to eight, becoming the first unionized Ben & Jerry’s employees in the company’s twenty-year history. But Watkins says that the Ben & Jerry’s campaign was so relentless that if the pro-union employees “hadn’t been so solid, we would have lost them.” Bargaining hasn’t been easy, either; by early July, seven months after the election, there had been more than a dozen frustrating negotiation sessions, none lasting longer than three hours, and a satisfactory contract was nowhere on the horizon.

Lee Holden, a Ben & Jerry’s spokesman, told me that the company’s legal counsel had forbidden media interviews about the union during contract negotiations. (Lest this be taken as a lapse in grooviness, Holden was at pains to be super-friendly about it. “Thanks for understanding,” he said, smoother than a sorbet.) The employees involved in the drive were equally circumspect, refusing, via Watkins, to be interviewed for this article, for fear of retaliation from the company. Watkins admits that these fears may not be completely justified, but the workers’ reticence, considering that they have already won a union election, suggests an unusually hostile workplace.

Given that Ben & Jerry’s professes concern for—and even puts some serious money toward helping—the poor and marginal, the company’s anti-unionism seems curious. But in balking at unions in its own workplace, Ben & Jerry’s is far from unique among progressive employers. Businesses with an explicit mission of “social responsibility” (SR)— of which Ben & Jerry’s is probably the most famously liberal—have been proliferating since the late seventies. In addition to Ben & Jerry’s, such companies as Borders Books and Music, Starbucks, Noah’s Bagels, Whole Foods, Newman’s Own, Working Assets, and the Portland, Oregon-based Powell’s Books have recently been mired in acrimonious labor disputes. “It’s business, man!” says Marty Kruse, a used-book buyer and one of the initial Powell’s organizers, who thinks it’s foolish even to make an issue of SR union-busting. “We don’t live in some anarcho-syndicalist utopia. If you’re disappointed that they’re resisting, you’re being naïve.”

“It’s very frustrating,” says Paul Couey, another Powell’s Books employee and leader of its union drive, of the myriad paradoxes involved in organizing workers in an SR context. Employees and union representatives agree that when workers are trying to organize, a company’s PC image is at best a mixed blessing—and sometimes a flat-out curse. The rhetoric of “social responsibility” can be a company’s Achilles heel—laying it wide open to charges of hypocrisy—but it’s also an insidious union-busting tool. Paul Mishler, a New York-based labor educator who has closely followed the Ben & Jerry’s situation, puts it, “Being an unconventional boss can be used to justify being an undemocratic boss.”

Like Ben & Jerry’s, many progressive employers use their SR image against the union. This was certainly the case in the campaigns by booksellers and other employees of Borders Books & Music—efforts that started in 1996 and petered out last year. Founded by two Ann Arbor hippies in the 1970s, Borders is now the second-largest book retailer in the world. But when employees in Philadelphia, Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Ann Arbor, Harrisburg, Evanston, Des Moines, Seattle, New York City, and Stamford, Connecticut, sought union representation, the company skillfully evoked the long-running perception that it was a progressive company. Borders corporate flacks loudly touted the domestic-partner benefits the company offered to gay and lesbian couples (never mind that those benefits included a health plan most employees couldn’t afford).

In numerous public statements, Borders officials praised the noble history of the labor movement but insisted either that unions were irrelevant to the contemporary workplace, or simply “inappropriate for Borders.” In Philadelphia, where employees had petitioned to join the Wobblies (yes, a tiny remnant of the IWW still exists), one manager (a self-identified socialist) posted a flyer on the employee bulletin board headlined: “The Days of Joe Hill Are Over!” Of course, such posturing wasn’t the only reason Borders ultimately wore down its agitators; the company also deployed the decidedly uncrunchy tactic of hiring Jackson, Lewis, one of the leading union-busting law firms in the nation, to stop the organizing. But employees agree that Borders’ phantasmic liberalism helped management immeasurably. (Employees in Chicago, Des Moines, Bryn Mawr, and New York’s World Trade Center did win their union drives, and even, in Chicago, Des Moines, and New York City, secured contracts. However, most of the victories were short-lived. Last year the Byrn Mawr union was decertified, and the World Trade Center’s became completely ineffectual after employees voted to add an open-shop clause to the contract. The Des Moines union currently faces decertification, and no new campaigns are underway.)

More recently, employees at Powell’s Books, a six-store chain in Portland, Oregon—who, at $7 an hour, were making no more than Portland’s average fast-food worker, and had just been denied an expected wage increase—faced a similar, though more restrained, counterattack when they wanted to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Local 5 (ILWU). Owner Michael Powell is a prominent progressive in Portland who is active in the local Democratic Party and an outspoken free-speech advocate. His bookstore is a favorite meeting-place for the Portland left, and at least appears to celebrate diversity of all sorts. This summer’s in-store readings included lesbian poet Minnie Bruce Pratt and ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak, and the store’s Web site is run in close partnership with the Utne Reader. So last fall, employees and customers alike were surprised that Powell fought the union. He sent out a letter to all his employees’ homes accusing the union of corruption (actually confusing it with a different union); later, he campaigned against the ILWU’s long record as a defendant in discrimination suits. “You say the word ‘union,’ and everyone’s supposed to feel all squishy. I don’t get it,” Powell insists. “I understand if you’re organizing farm workers, or people in Bangladesh. But this is not that kind of situation.”

The union won in April, 161 to 155—a very close margin. Paul Couey, who works in the store’s corporate accounts department, says Michael Powell’s bluster hurt the union. “He [Powell] framed it as a human rights issue,” says Couey. “He said the union would quell free speech. He used all this jargon that sounded progressive—saying that we were a small, organic institution, and could respond more flexibly [without a union].” (There’s a grain of truth to this concern about flexibility. If Powell’s really were committed to workplace democracy, the quirks of U.S. labor law could make it difficult for unionized workers to combine “management” and “non-management” roles. But there’s no evidence that Powell is sincerely engaged with such complexities.) Says Couey, “Most of the flexibility to which he was referring was managerial. We wanted some flexibility in our own finances!” Because Powell was known to be progressive, employees were at first confused when he talked about unions in what Couey calls “such stereotypical” terms. “In early meetings, some of us felt that if we could explain it better maybe he would understand. But as it continued it became clear that he wasn’t misinformed; it was a tactic.”

Asked why he didn’t simply agree to recognize the union after enough employees signed cards, Powell hesitates. “That’s a good question. I thought about it,” he says. “But it just didn’t seem like the right thing.” Powell claims that he didn’t voluntarily recognize the union in part because some employees opposed it, though of course it was also because an organized workforce will make it “harder to compete in the industry.” When I ask Alice Tepper Marlin, a founder of the Council on Economic Priorities, which tracks corporate social responsibility (and has showered Ben & Jerry’s with adulation in the past), if she knows of any company that has voluntarily recognized a union “on principle,” she laughs. “It would be very unusual,” she says. Marlin looked through her files, and was unable to locate a single example of such an occurrence.

So what’s going on here? Like New Age religion, that other cultural pathology of the 1980s, the SR business movement reflects that period’s lack of left political vision and analysis. In its implicit notion that consumerism could substitute for politics—aptly reflected in the title of that Bible of corporate social responsibility, Shopping for a Better World—it was, at best, a lazy and naïve idealism. At worst, it cynically played on the reality that, in the 1980s, as now, many people were unhappy with a world centered around corporate profits, yet could imagine no alternative. It played on most Americans’ desire to believe that capitalism, without any major, messy overhaul, could be a force for good, if only the people in charge meant well. The movement has spawned many of what futurist and SR guru Hazel Henderson calls “cleaner and greener” small firms, and increasingly, large corporations are jumping on the marketing bandwagon; even Wal-Mart is now a member of Business for Social Responsibility. The buzzword itself is revealing. “Responsibility” suggests that, like parents or benign dictators, people running businesses should make compassionate and sensible use of power—while the fact of that power should go unchallenged.

As prescriptions for social change go, then, SR is uninspiring, inadequate, and unambitious. But it’s also a ready-made rationalization for union-busting; after all, if the people running the show are the ones who bear all the responsibility, and are cool progressive folks, why would workers need a voice of their own? Local 4’s Michael Cannarella, who coordinated the Powell’s drive, has organized many nonprofits “run by fairly liberal people.” “The reaction is universally the same,” he says. “‘Hey, we’re taking care of these people, how dare they?’ It’s like, ‘I’m the dad, you’re the kids.’ Sometimes the more liberal they are, the worse their reaction to the union because they’re the ones who take it the most personally.”

Michael Powell, for one, has taken the union victory very personally indeed. “I thought I was a compassionate employer,” he says. “I thought I tried to reward my employees as best I could. That point of view was rejected. It shakes your confidence in who you are and what your values are.”

“Even employers who want to do good end up acting like employers,” Paul Mishler observes. “That’s why you need unions.” As for employers who claim that they already treat their employees so well that a union isn’t necessary, Mishler says, “That’s like asking, would you need democracy if you always had a nice president? It’s a silly question. The fact is that dictators always end up doing bad things, and employers are the same. Without a union [an SR workplace] is a benevolent dictatorship.”

Listening to Michael Powell, it’s clear that either he’s genuinely anxious that a pack of sweaty longshoremen are going to invade his genteel bookstore or, just as likely, he’s playing on his workers’ status anxieties. “We’re not on the docks,” he says. “I don’t want an assembly-line work environment. I want to be able to talk collegially to my employees.” Says Mishler, “A lot of people who emerged from that period of the sixties have this idea that middle-class niceness is better than working-class roughness. You know, ‘they’re not our type of person, they listen to the wrong music, they eat meat.’” Not only do such attitudes preclude these employers’ empathy with workers, they inform a cornerstone of SR anti-unionism: the assumption that conflict itself is destructive. Borders’ management, in trying to discourage employees from unionizing, continually disparaged unions as “divisive,” and disruptive to company “culture.” Such narratives exploit employees’ utopianism; most people would like to believe in the possibility of a non-exploitative workplace in which workers’ and companies’ interests are the same. This is probably a pipe dream in firms without full worker ownership. But rather than inspiring employers at least to try to approximate such a vision, the rhetoric and practice of corporate socially responsibility actively undermines it.

Still, the outlook for SR employees who wish to unionize is certainly no bleaker than that for any other workers—and they do have some points in their favor. One advantage to organizing SR workplaces, for the union movement and for employees, is that it provides a political impetus to create better unions—these are employers that will call a union on a lack of democracy or other, often very real, political flaws. Michael Powell wasn’t wrong to point out unions’ history of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia—nearly every imaginable form of exclusion; such a history exists, and it’s shameful. Having opponents with the vocabulary to recognize such problems is probably constructive for the labor movement. SR businesses, however vague their own politics, also tend to attract politically conscious employees, the kind of people who could turn out to be lifelong labor activists, and at the very least, could help unions to work in left coalitions and rebound as a political force.

As the first group of employees in the ILWU’s new local, Powell’s employees have the opportunity to create a democratic structure; it’s a responsibility they’re taking seriously as they draft their new local’s constitution. The pro-union employees knew that choosing a decent union was crucial, not only because they knew that Michael Powell would play the “unions are corrupt” card, but also because progressive workers, far from being knee-jerk pro-unionists, tend to be skeptical about institutions. “When you’re organizing a progressive business, it’s especially important to have a [union] record you can defend—many unions really don’t have a democratic structure,” says Couey. “We would not have won if we had gone with a less democratic union.”

At this writing, in early July, a contract seemed likely, but Ben & Jerry’s was still refusing to yield to employees’ overtime demands. Since overtime was the primary impetus behind the representation drive in the first place, failure to make any progress on it is a defeat for the union. “They’ve said they’re not going to give in on that. But I’m going to sit down with them one more time,” says the laconic Watkins, “and talk about some fairness issues.”

Liza Featherstone is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y.