The elections of 2008, in which Democrats took over in Congress and Barack Obama was elected president, helped situate the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as one of the most powerful labor unions in the country.

SEIU has organized campaigns to unionize the janitorial workforce in mid-market cities such as Cincinnati, Miami and Indianapolis in recent years; large metropolitan areas such as Chicago and New York have a longer history with the union. The organization is the fastest-growing union in the United States, representing 2.2 million workers, according to its Web site.

The union spent upwards of $85 million during the 2008 campaign season, and its president, Andy Stern, hasn’t been shy about seeking a return on investment, according to news reports.

Mark Mix, president of Washington, D.C.-based National Right To Work (NRTW) Committee, a nonprofit organization opposed to compulsory unionism, says SEIU’s political power is immense, with one goal in mind: increased membership.

“The most powerful people in Washington are union officials,” Mix says. “Andy Stern was the top visitor to the White House during the first six months of the Obama administration. He was there 22 times — that’s more than the joint chiefs of staff, more than the secretary of state, more than the secretary of defense.”

The number of union members in government is now greater than the number of union members in the private sector, which Mix says is concrete evidence of unions’ drive to use the government to build their marketshare.

What concerns Mix, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, industry associations and individual business owners, is the possibility of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) being passed through Congress or implemented through interpretations of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Currently, employees who want to form a union go through a secret ballot election if their employer doesn’t authorize unionization. EFCA, also known as “card check” legislation, would allow employees to form unions if a bare majority of employees sign cards authorizing union representation. It would also provide government-assisted mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes, and establish stronger penalties on employers for violations.

Obama has pledged to sign EFCA into law, but it faces difficulty in Congress.

“It’s really a one-sided bill. It dramatically benefits organized labor, it does not benefit workers, it does not benefit employers,” says Mix, who also heads the NRTW Legal Defense Foundation. “It is a dramatic increase in the power of organized labor officials.”

Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Workforce Freedom Initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agrees. He believes the legislation is facing an uphill battle, but says employers should be paying close attention to what’s going on in Washington.

“It’s such a grave threat to the employer community that we need to just remain in constant vigilance against this,” Spencer says. “At a time when America’s job creators are struggling to get us out of this economic downturn, it’s just adding more layers of restrictions. Putting hindrances in the way of creating jobs is probably not the smartest thing to do.”

Obama’s recent recess appointment of labor attorney Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board is also stirring controversy in legal and business circles. Becker’s nomination to the NLRB had been blocked by the Senate in February, but he was still appointed at the end of March.

NRTW’s legal work is on behalf of employees who are fighting back against unions, Mix says, and it has about 160 cases pending with the NLRB. Currently, the organization has 12 cases pending with the board against Becker, which may present a conflict of interest now that he’s a board member, Mix says.

“We’re asking that he recuse himself from all cases related to his most recent employer, which was, as of last Friday [March 26], the Service Employee International Union,” Mix says.

With Becker’s appointment, the board now has a Democratic majority, suggesting the potential for dramatic change from here on out, Spencer says.

“I think they are likely to engage in active rule-making, which is something that hasn’t been done in 30 years,” Spencer says. “So, they won’t just sit there and let cases come to them. They will go out and proactively put in place new rules.”

The regulatory body that is the NLRB has become so political that it will now be used to do the unions’ bidding, Mix says.

“It’s become a mechanism for imposing things that organized labor officials can’t get done through the legislative process,” Mix adds.

Questioning ‘free choice’

While pro-labor organizations and unions say EFCA gives workers more freedom to join and form unions, many building service contractors and other professionals in the cleaning industry don’t agree. ISSA called upon members in March 2009 to oppose EFCA, stating in a release that “trading federally supervised private ballot elections for a card check process tramples the privacy rights of individual workers. Secret ballots are the only way to protect an individual’s freedom to choose without subtle or overt coercion.”

BSCs argue that card check, which requires signatures from 50 percent of employees, plus one, benefits big unions more than it benefits employees.

“I could have sworn ‘free choice’ meant a private election where you could vote your mind and your conscience without other people knowing,” says Paul Greenland, president of Aetna Building Maintenance in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus was targeted in 2006 and 2007, along with Indianapolis and Cincinnati, by SEIU’s “Justice For Janitors” campaign. Aetna’s employees, along with other area BSCs, are now SEIU members.

BSCs say that companies don’t really have much of a choice once they are targeted by SEIU for unionization.

“For the most part, it’s a no-win situation for the contractor,” Greenland says. “While they were targeting us to become unionized, the methods affected our customers. And as a partner with my customers, I couldn’t let that happen.”

Corporate campaigns are a mass organizing effort to recruit new union members, sometimes through questionable means. Few building service contractors have deemed it worthwhile to fight unionization — but those who have say they owe it to themselves, their employees and business owners as a whole to stand up to the unions.

Dave Bego, president of Indianapolis-based Executive Management Services (EMS), wrote a book about his refusal to sign a neutrality agreement and SEIU’s subsequent campaign against his company (see sidebar). From the handing out of accusatory fliers and protests outside of customer facilities to employee harassment and a barrage of unsubstantiated labor and safety violation allegations, SEIU was on the attack for three years, he says.

“In corporate campaigns, the unions aren’t coming after your employees — they’re coming after you,” Bego says. “It’s psychological warfare. Their goal is to get you, as the owner, to capitulate. It isn’t about the employee at all. You need to wake up; they’re coming after you, and the collateral damage is your employees and your customers.”

SEIU did not comment after multiple requests for an interview.

Contractors in the cleaning industry have not been the only ones targeted in corporate campaigns by SEIU, which includes not only service workers but those in healthcare and security services as well. Other SEIU targets have included Sutter Health and Wackenhut, and entities like hospitals and nurses associations.

Most corporate campaigns are run exactly the same way, no matter what cities or companies or industries are targeted, says Randy Schaber, spokesman for Somers Building Maintenance in Sacramento, Calif. Somers was thrust into the limelight in the late 1990s when the company resisted an SEIU campaign.

Neutrality agreements are a contract between the union and the company that, among other things, ban a secret ballot election during an employee-organizing effort. The neutrality agreement is a technique used in so-called “top-down” organizing, in which union officials actively seek out and pursue members. The agreements contain the same basic provisions as EFCA, Bego says, so if the legislation passes, business owners’ compliance would no longer be necessary. EFCA makes it easier for unions to organize, by bypassing the employer completely in order to increase membership, he adds.

“It’s all about money and it’s all about power,” Bego says. “Unions are hurting financially, they’re desperate for membership, desperate for revenue, and they don’t really care about the employees. That’s evident in their campaigns.”

Campaigns are designed around filing numerous NLRB charges as well as lawsuits, Schaber says. The strategy is to increase a company’s expenses while decreasing revenues by making them lose customers.

When SEIU comes to town with a campaign, companies sit back and watch, in fear, he says.

“It’s kind of like a safari, where you have a whole group of zebras, and the lion goes after one zebra, and the others run away, thinking they’re safe,” Schaber says. “What they want to do, once they break the biggest company, then they’ll go to the second-biggest and the third-biggest and so on, and presto! They’ve organized the city without an election.”

When a company does decide to stand up to the union, they incur major expenses doing so. Bego says EMS has spent more than $1 million, much of that in legal bills, fighting SEIU. But, he says, it’s a matter of principal — he believes it’s wrong to sign the neutrality agreement, and to be bullied into cooperating.

Don’t lose sight of employee role

Companies that are unionized may not agree with the union or its tactics, but they live the best they can with the decision to sign a neutrality agreement. Because of the economy, and the cutting back of customer cleaning budgets, some BSCs have had to cut jobs and at the same time increase efficiencies, Greenland says. And the entrepreneurial side of the business is still allowed to flourish — as long as they are competing with other union companies.

“We’re competing on productivity, we’re competing on overhead, we’re competing on profit, we’re competing on who we are as a company vs. who they are as a company, and that’s OK. That’s not so bad,” Greenland says.

The real issue is if the union doesn’t control the market, he says. Bidding against non-union contractors who pay lower wages and don’t have to provide paid vacations and paid holidays and healthcare can put other companies at a price advantage.

Sometimes, the voice and perspective that gets lost in labor issues are those of the laborers themselves.

“Everyone thinks this is a battle between big employees and big unions, but there’s a third part of the equation and that is the employees,” Mix says.

Business owners like Bego resist SEIU because they want to preserve that employee choice.

“I’m pro-employee. I used to run union plants,” Bego says. “The problem is not with the average union member but instead lies with the union’s upper management and campaign organizers. Their objectives are often based on their own self-preservation and are not in the best interests of the employees.”

In the past — and for the most part, up to the present day — the BSC perspective on campaigns such as “Justice For Janitors” in the media has been muted. A big reason for that, says Bego, is fear. BSCs, who have already been labeled the bad guys as employers, are afraid to speak out against unionization campaigns.

Bego says he understands why very few other BSCs have resisted unions conducting campaigns, such as the SEIU.

“You have to be mentally tough and you have to have a lot of willpower, and you also have to have a lot of heart, because you have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. And you have to be able to withstand it,” he says.

Rather than looking at the fight as a business decision, analyzing how much money could be lost, Bego says he saw it as the right thing to do and he doesn’t regret it. When only 10 of approximately 400 EMS employees actually went on strike during the corporate campaign, he felt that he had his employees’ support in choosing not to sign the neutrality agreement.

Business owners should be mindful of any new regulations coming out of the Department of Labor, and need to think about becoming more politically engaged, Spencer says.

“I think a lot of companies assume that what happens in Washington doesn’t really impact them, and in past years, that may have been at least somewhat true,” he says. “But what’s happening here, now, this is just the beginning.”

Bego’s Book

Devil At My Doorstep: Protecting Employee Rights

In 2006, Dave Bego, president of Indianapolis-based EMS, was paying his employees above-average wages and providing sick days and health benefits — because he believed that was the right way to treat employees. With 5,000 employees in 33 states, EMS was a thriving contract cleaning company Bego had built from the ground up. But business as usual changed abruptly when SEIU came to town with a corporate campaign. It all started with the union’s request for Bego to sign a neutrality agreement.

“I’ve been a tremendously strong believer in, and consider myself a patriot when it comes to, personal freedoms in our country. And when I looked at this agreement, and if I signed it, I would unilaterally take away my employees’ right to a secret election. I would give that up,” Bego says. “And what I told the union brass when they were here in Indianapolis talking to me, is: ‘I don’t feel it is my right to give up the personal freedoms of my employees and I am not going to sign that agreement. I will never sign it.’”

Bego says he wrote the book not to be an author, but because he was appalled at what SEIU did to his employees, customers, and to him. He describes in detail the many tactics used to coerce and intimidate customers, employees and even colleagues and neighbors. Now, he has become somewhat of a poster child for the card check resistance movement.

“I feel it’s my obligation to tell the human side of the story, to tell the tragedy that’s happening, so that people wake up to what’s going on — because if we don’t wake up and they get these things through it’s going to destroy the business community,” Bego says.