Organising to defeat union busting

November 22, 2021
Fighting Union Busters book cover
Local 294-T, based in Eden, North Carolina, was Mohawk Industries’ only surviving union shop. Background image: Pixabay

Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill: An Organizers’ Memoir.
By Phil Cohen
McFarland and Co
2020, 200pp

Veteran union organiser Phil Cohen was called out of retirement in November, 2017, by the local branch (Local 294-T) of the Workers United/Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to investigate a union-busting plot in a carpet mill in North Carolina, United States.

Cohen was tasked with proving that the company, Mohawk Industries, was illegally pushing a petition to de-register the union.

Cohen started as a union organiser in 1974. He became so effective at organising unions in the South, a notoriously difficult region, that he was nicknamed The Ninja.

Fighting Union Busters in a Carolina Carpet Mill: An Organizers’ Memoir, is Cohen’s account of Local 294-T's struggle against Mohawk’s union-busting tactics.  This is Cohen’s second memoir, following The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace, published in 2016.

Having been one of a cluster of unionised textile mills, Local 294-T, based in Eden,  North Carolina, was Mohawk Industries’ only surviving union shop. Industry-wide layoffs have decimated the union movement over the past 40 years. Union membership in the local had declined to only 40%, “an open invitation for a hostile employer to exploit its weakness”.

Mohawk Industries, a Fortune 500 conglomerate, employing 30,000 workers in 16 countries, decided to bust Local 294-T using anti-union employees with personal ambitions and/or a grudge against the union to campaign to force a ballot on whether to keep the union in the mill.

The company recruited younger workers in their 20s and 30s, with little knowledge of Local 294-T’s historical struggles that made the mill workers the highest paid in the area. It also attempted to exploit the fact that then-president Donald Trump stacked the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) with anti-union appointees.

Moreover, Trump’s NLRB appointees were looking for cases to determine procedural rules in a way that would undermine workers' ability to organise and bargain. Cohen had to build a case proving management misconduct through illegal involvement in the de-certification petition campaign, so that the NLRB would have to block the vote on the basis of unfair labour practices by Mohawk.

In the course of the campaign, Cohen draws on his experience in handling NRLB cases to convince mill workers — frightened of company retribution — to give testimony to the NRLB proving management interference. He utilised workplace relationships and networks of Local 294-T members, while dealing with legal counter-manoeuvres from Mohawk’s high-paid lawyer.

In Fighting Union Busters, Cohen emphasises the role that the largely African-American-led Local 294-T played throughout the campaign, which came to a successful conclusion in August, 2018, when the NLRB ruled the company’s de-certification campaign invalid. The ruling cited three Mohawk officials found to be soliciting petition signatures and plenty of other examples of management assisting the anti-union campaign.

After defeating Mohawk, an uneasy peace was established between Local 294-T and management.

Cohen emphasises the need for the union to arrest the decline in numbers through systematic internal organising, more home visits, and an aggressive focus on shop-floor issues, like the repetitive stress injuries so common in the mill.

Fighting Union Busters provides many important lessons for the union movement in how to organise against corporations that are determined to use any means — legal or illegal — to defeat union organising. Similar methods were used to defeat a unionisation drive in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, last year.

The ultimately successful efforts by Cohen and Local 294-T to prevent Mohawk’s union-busting campaign, against great odds, is an inspiring tale in the fight for a better world.

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