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Why Is This Union Leader Schmoozing With the Enemy?

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Liz Shuler
Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. Photo credit: Seb Daly/Collision via Sportsfile

This article appeared originally in The Nation.

Surrounded by the vistas of western Montana, the generals of the war against Starbucks baristas will gather on August 3 at a swanky Rocky Mountain resort for three days of discussing labor-management relations. Big Sky Resort is hosting the confab, and when attendees aren’t meeting, they can avail themselves of golf, guided trout fishing, luxurious dining, and spa treatments before retiring to their $600-a-night hotel suites.

Ostensibly called to bring together corporate, government, and union officials for “meaningful discussion about solutions to some of the challenges facing our country today in the labor and employment arena,” the privately organized Big Sky Labor and Employment Conference features three senior attorneys from Littler Mendelson, the country’s biggest and most notorious union-busting law firm. Also making an appearance: top executives at the US Chamber of Commerce, Verizon, Boeing, and Bank of America, as well as Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has been, not coincidentally, one of Littler’s go-to judges for overturning worker protections.

The conference is the brainchild of Roger King, a retired senior attorney from the Jones Day firm. King played a leading role in NLRB vs. Noel Canning, the most devastating court decision for workers and labor law enforcement of the Obama era.

And for some reason, the president of the AFL–CIO, Liz Shuler, has agreed to open the conference alongside the Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president.

Shuler did not reply to my attempts to ask why she is attending before publication, but she apparently believes it’s OK for the head of the US union movement to hobnob with the country’s worst anti-union elements. Business executives are no doubt delighted that her presence confers legitimacy on their unsavory gathering. Shuler is sending precisely the wrong message to workers. While baristas, warehouse laborers, and others are fighting back against firings, harassment, and other forms of corporate retaliation, she is off to a posh resort with the workers’ very persecutors. We need a fighting labor movement in 2022, and Shuler’s appearance undercuts the solidarity that workers rightfully demand and urgently need.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may be the face of his company’s union busting, but Littler lawyers are the masterminds and the muscle behind the operation. With Littler consulting, Starbucks is firing union workersclosing union stores for “safety” reasons, forcing union workers to reapply for their jobs or be relocated, engaging in “captive audience” meetings (shamefully permitted under US labor law), and sending managers into stores to change schedules and issue write-ups and threats. Littler is blatantly running a campaign to intimidate workers.

Hundreds of charges of unfair labor practice are piling up at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but that’s not a problem for Littler. The firm intends to overwhelm the labor board, which is short-staffed after years of austerity under both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is dragging out elections and litigation, and hopes to prevail by prevent workers from accessing their rights until the union drives are dead.

Littler’s war on workers also seeks to deter other baristas from organizing. Starbucks workers at more than 300 US stores have organized—but that’s just over 3 percent of the country’s Starbucks-operated stores. Littler’s scorched-earth approach aims to create a firebreak to prevent the spread of union shops.

And when it comes to corporate America versus the labor board, it’s not a fair fight. Littler Mendelson—just one union-busting firm among many—has more than 1,000 lawyers in the US and an annual budget that is twice the budget of the NLRB.

Schultz is willing to take a public bruising in the short term—and pay Littler a fortune—because, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the other corporate representatives at the Montana conference, he is playing the long game. The goal of big business is to marginalize workers who try to organize, overwhelm the labor board, and force cases to go before the Supreme Court, which will overturn what little remains of legal worker protections. It is to raze the entire labor movement, not just nip the growing power of baristas.

Sadly, Shuler is not the only one who believes in fraternizing with the enemy. Also featured at the conference: former SEIU leader David Rolf and nurses association officials, speaking on a panel about “labor/management engagement and cooperation” alongside the legal minds behind union-busting at Providence Healthcare and Verizon. There’s also an official from the United Food and Commercial Workers union appearing with the senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and the CEO of the International Franchise Association to talk about “What’s being discussed in Washington?” (Spoiler alert: What the Chamber and the franchise association are plotting in Washington is to destroy UFCW members’ rights.)

The corporate agenda is not a secret. When asked recently if he’d ever embrace a union, Schultz simply replied, “No.”

How about we all crash this get-together? Think again. Shuler and the union officials were invited, as were various government officials, but Starbucks baristas and other workers are not welcome. After traveling to western Montana, you’d have to fork over $750 for conference registration, plus $1,000 and up for food and lodging. (I wrote to the conference asking if registration fees could be waived for workers. King, the Jones Day attorney and conference executive director, wrote back to say no.)

The challenge that the Starbucks workers face is twofold: First, corporate executives and their attorneys are determined to break worker power. And second, union leaders are failing to mobilize the aggressive, all-union response that’s needed for workers to have a fighting chance.

Remember the union slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”? A true labor leader would be mobilizing unions to join Starbucks workers in mass picket lines, organizing coast-to-coast demonstrations, demanding that anyone seeking public office and wanting labor support first stand with Starbucks workers, and urging large-scale disruptions any time a worker is fired or abused. A true labor leader would be marshaling the resources of our movement to fight back, not sashaying off to a summer junket to schmooze with the would-be architects of labor’s destruction.

When Senator Bernie Sanders says, “For 45 years there has been a war in this country waged by the corporate elite against the working class of America,” he’s talking about the attacks orchestrated by Littler, Trump-appointed judges, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Perhaps, when the union officials kick back at the Montana resort (their time paid for by their members), they will tell themselves some fantasy about a labor-management détente that’s just around the corner. But it should be obvious that there’s no labor peace in America. It’s bosses against workers, and Shuler needs to pick a side.

Update: After publication, Liz Shuler responded with the statement: “I will go anywhere and talk to anyone—including non-traditional audiences and those who don’t agree with us—to raise the voices of the working people of America and our vision of an economy, a democracy, a country that works for us. That’s my job and my priority as president of the AFL-CIO.”


About the Author 

Jonathan Rosenblum is a union and community organizer based in Seattle. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement and a member of the National Writers Union.