It was a nasty, ugly, three-year, million-dollar war I did not ask for, but had to win. Otherwise, the business I loved would be infiltrated by a scheming labor union determined to undermine employee privacy rights and destroy my version of the American Dream. This was the same labor union later connected to the infamous ACORN political group as well as disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. While the war was brewing, hot-button issues such as the Employee Free Choice Act, immigration, and the survival of labor unions in the 21st century became part of the fight, one stretching from the Midwest to the shores of Europe.
The full-scale assault I experienced first-hand came from the two million member Service Employee International Union (SEIU), and its president, Andy Stern, a misguided socialist The New York Times dubbed “The Drama Queen of Big Labor.” With millions of dollars at his disposal and politicians such as President Barak Obama and Ted Kennedy in his corner, Stern was certain of victory especially against a family business like mine he thought he could intimidate, using, as he noted in his book, A Country at Work, “the persuasion of power” instead of the “power of persuasion.”
What Stern didn’t realize was that I was never going to surrender to his accusations and threats, and in the end, he lost the war as the company I loved outmaneuvered him at every turn. In effect, David beat Goliath again, but the struggle was costly as my reputation was dragged through the mud and legal bills approached a million dollars.
The SEIU target - Executive Management Services (EMS), a cleaning and maintenance company started from scratch with a few thousand dollars and a willingness to work hard and treat customers and employees alike with respect. For nearly twenty years, we had built a respectable business to the point in 2006 where we employed nearly 5000 workers in thirty-three states. Among our customers were 50 Fortune 500 companies including AT&T, Fed-Ex, UPS, General Electric, Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, and State Farm Insurance.
Like thousands of other businesses of our size and nature with an outstanding employer-employee track record, we never dealt with potential union organization since our wages and benefit packages exceeded those of any unionized employer in the marketplace. In many ways, EMS was the standard of excellence, a business built on quality, integrity, and customer service second to none in tandem with principles required of anyone who owns their own business. At the heart of any success were those employees on the front line, the ones who cleaned the buildings and plants, the ones who made it possible for the company to grow, and to earn a respectable profit so employees could be secure in their jobs. Teamwork was the call of the day for a company that was not going to change the world, but simply do its part to further the American Dream for everyone who interacted with us.
Then, with a sudden shock, like a bolt of lightning on a blue-sky, sunny day, the shadow of Stern and the SEIU began to hover over our home offices and customer buildings and plants in a multi-state area. Despite our willingness to agree to fair elections as to whether unionization might be permitted at EMS according to the time-tested and private “secret ballot” procedure as noted in the National Labor Relations Act, thunder in the form of intimidation, threats, and frivolous claims of impropriety were launched against us. By resisting the imposed will of SEIU that we agree to “card check” recognition depriving our employees of their freedom of privacy, the company was labeled a “rat contractor” that cleaned buildings dubbed “Houses of Horror” for janitors whose human rights had been violated, all in the name of corporate greed. For the first time in our history, multiple NLRB filings were filed against EMS for civil rights violations and for firing union supporters as the company image was soiled on a daily basis.
As for me, I would be called deceitful, greedy, anti-union, and downright evil as noisy demonstrations and protests began popping up at buildings where we managed maintenance. My own safety was threatened as I tried to stand up against the SEIU and its band of thugs. Letters packed with insults were sent to customers telling them what a scoundrel I was, one who profited from paying “poverty wages.” One Halloween, the union organizers even resorted to using young children “trick or treating” to pass out nasty flyers at the home of a major EMS client. On another occasion, they released hundreds of purple and yellow balloons in a building atrium while supporters used bullhorns to shout their hateful messages to startled onlookers.
When the union became frustrated with lack of progress toward forcing itself on us, they convinced a handful of employees to strike. For months, we watched as strikers, union organizers, and clergy, misinformed, but steadfast in their support of SEIU, demonstrated using foghorns, cowbells, and prayer vigils to convince customers and the public at large we were the dark knight. Violence nearly broke out as the war escalated to multiple states and even to London where the SEIU organized a protest against one of our customers by pulling the Islamic Society of North America into the fray. All the while, I wondered whether clients would dump EMS causing the company to reorganize or even close its doors.
From the beginning, I knew the company could either cave in to undesirable and un-American demands, or fight back. Without hesitation, and despite the risk involved, I decided on the latter. Now I was the general in charge of defending EMS and its employees against the most powerful, most politically-connected union in the country, one led by Stern, a ruthless man who welcomed the war and intended to bring me and EMS to our knees. The devil was at my doorstep, and if I did not close the door, Stern and his union would, for all practical purposes, be running my business rather than me.
What is the SEIU, and who is Andy Stern? For more than half a decade, both have been making headlines in such publications as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and on CNN and MSNBC programs in connection with pending legislation dubbed the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Passage would promote Stern’s main agenda, to expand the SEIU’s membership in a short period of time with little opposition so the union can further its political aims. But the act, first introduced in the House of Representatives in 2008 and currently pending in the Senate, provides among other matters, the forced imposition of the “card check” recognition where employee choice would be subject to pressure, coercion and intimidation by union members since the vote is public depriving workers of their right to privacy. But using the clever name, Employee Free Choice Act, makes the legislation appear rather benign when it is anything but. Nothing short of worker freedom is at stake for those caught in the web of Andy Stern and his dedication to global unionization.
SEIU tentacles stretch back in time to the existence of the infamous American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized by Samuel Gompers in 1886. Thirty-plus years later, the “Building Service Employees Union” was created with members including janitors, elevator operators, and window washers. Various forms of the union existed until the BSEU became the SEIU and emerged strong under an AFL-CIO umbrella. But then Stern, a rough and tumble Philadelphia labor union organizer, took the reigns from SEIU boss John Sweeney, and promptly dissolved the AFL-CIO/SEIU relationship. Free to proceed with his lofty goal of “social movement organizing” while increasing union membership and stretching union influence into the political spectrum as never before, Stern’s plans paid off, with membership advancing toward two million union member mark as of 2008. When Andy said SEIU was the fastest growing union in the world, he wasn’t kidding.
How did Stern succeed where others before him had failed – by resorting to tactics former union Teamsters boss James Hoffa would have applauded. Once I refused to sign what SEIU called a “Neutrality Agreement,” a precursor to the EFCA, the battle began, a no-holds-barred campaign to malign EMS and discredit me, the company founder with a placid history of dealing with unions at previous employment stops along the road such as Central Soya. Anyone who said I was “anti-union” was out of his or her mind since unions truly caring about the workers and fighting for their rights will always have a welcome place in American industry. But when bullies like the SEIU force their way in where they are not needed, nor wanted, and attempt to deprive employees of Constitutional guarantees, such conduct is outrageous and cannot be tolerated.
SEIU was one of those unions with their strong-armed tactics spreading to states like California and Texas.
Despite nifty, but misleading slogans such as “Jobs for Justice,” and what I call “front organizations” such as “Jobs with Justice,” “Interfaith Worker Justice,” and “United Students” pounding the pavement on their behalf based on less than truthful understanding of the facts, SEIU’s distasteful organizing campaigns caused former union members like Kevin Funk to exclaim, “[SEIU is] characterized by an often but subtle yet convoluted net of deceit, fear-mongering [and] incompetence.” At a California hospital, a judge directed SEIU to cease packing an emergency room with “fake” patients so as to disrupt services. Aware that dues were the lifeblood of the union, an SEIU employee remarked, “To them, we are a huge ATM machine.” This didn’t stop politicians like Obama, Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, ones who had directly benefited from millions of dollars in campaign contributions, from backing SEIU’s full-court press to pass the EFCA legislation. Indeed, Interfaith Justice Workers was just an extension of SEIU after the union contributed more than $100,000 to the organization for two years running.
Regarding my adversary, SEIU’s commander in chief Andy Stern, conflicting opinions surrounded a man who had never worked for a company for any length of time permitting him to stand in employee’s shoes, or been a part of any corporate management team where he might be on the firing line in dealing with worker issues. But Andy was sure he was right, that unionizing an entire industry like ours was the only way to secure equal rights for workers despite ours being pleased with the wages and benefits they received. Upset that many called his union, “SEIU who?” and disappointed that other union leaders referred to him as an “arrogant usurper,” and a “rather small peacock” who “wanted his own TV show” while comparing him in the media to Vladimir Putin regarding his dedication to socialism, Stern forged ahead even though a California colleague said SEIU had “an overly zealous focus on growth – growth at any cost.”
If Stern, or his chief union organizer, would have visited EMS, or talked to any of our employees, they might have backed off and left us alone. But instead they blitzed us with a campaign unparalleled in intensity. Preliminary skirmishes occurred from the fall of 2006 until about May of 2007 before the win-at-all-costs battlefield brawl began. Then we were peppered with the full arsenal of SEIU weapons: confrontations with our employees where subtle threats occurred, stalking of employees scaring many of them, “salting” union-oriented new employees into our company employee rolls with the intention of disrupting our work productivity, nasty letters to customers detailing allegations of impropriety never proven, collaboration with well-meaning clergy poisoned with false facts about EMS, the demonstration in London stretching the war into international newspapers, noisy demonstrations outside buildings using children as sympathy icons, the Halloween fiasco shaking the confidence of one customer, protests agitating building owners who were asked to fire EMS as their cleaning supplier, and handbills and flyers calling us the worst names imaginable. For months on end, full-scale war between Stern, his union organizers and EMS roared as I tried to fend off the weapons of destruction threatening our business. When the strike occurred, I thought we might not recover from the onslaught even though my faith and belief in protecting our employees was never stronger. Bolstered by the support of my wife, my son and daughter, my brother-in-law, and long term management team all members of the EMS family, I faced the enemy each day despite the odds.
As the fall of 2007 appeared, and matters worsened toward a point of no return, I decided to launch a counter-offensive at the enemy. My weapon was an overwhelming set of charges filed with the NLRB detailing thirty-three specific allegations of SEIU wrongful conduct and presented to the world through an EMS press release. The media blitz was intended to finally reveal the true facts about the union and how they had used every dirty trick in the book to force me to cave in to their demands. Like the surge that cleared the way for peace in Iraq, our surge shocked the union and made them realize we would never give in, and never give up. Soon, they began to retreat and I could feel victory at hand. But this feeling was short-lived for the enemy had another card to play and in the early 2008, the SEIU, with support from the NLRB, coaxed me into an agreement where EMS was required to post, with no admission of guilt, a list of company requirements concerning efforts toward unionization already strictly adhered to in accordance with company policies. Blindsided by not realizing SEIU’s true intention, I blinked and soon the devil was back at my doorstep with a barrage of new allegations of impropriety regarding the re-instatement of striking employees. The war had resumed, and during the remainder of 2008 and into the spring of 2009, I continued to mount forces dedicated to keeping the SEIU at bay.
While the war escalated, dipped in stature, and then escalated again, the larger shadow hovering over EMS and every non-union business in America was the Employees Free Choice Act. Unions like the SEIU live on member dues, and realize that unless more workers are unionized, dues are never going to line the pocket of executives like Stern. So a new battle ensued as I tried to lead the charge along with other small to medium sized business owners to make Senators aware of the full impact of the pending legislation. If it passes the Senate, White House approval is certain since President Obama was an original sponsor of the act while a member of the Senate.
To my way of thinking, and many others with any notion of history, the “card check” recognition process is against everything this country believes in regarding the privacy to vote without any threat of repercussion. If workers lose this right, they lose their freedom, and next to loss of life, freedom is our most cherished possession. Day after day, with a spiritual foundation to guide me, I continue to use both hands; one fighting Stern and the SEIU, and the other toward rejection of the EFCA, since if we don’t fight for what we believe in, we lose every bit of our integrity. Nothing short of the future of our nation, one based on the principles of entrepreneurship, free enterprise, and capitalism, is at stake. We must win the battle against the EFCA for losing it is sure to bring destruction to the core values guaranteed by the Constitution, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Meanwhile, in early 2009, I learned that Stern and the SEIU still intended to unionize my company. At NLRB hearings, and at buildings where my employees just wanted to be left alone to do their jobs, the union continued its campaign, one designed to wear me down and make me give up. It won’t happen.