Since retiring from his position as CEO of Home Depot, Bernard Marcus has become one of this country’s most vocal opponents of organized labor, criticizing unions in the media and on Capitol Hill. That is a long way from Marcus’s beginnings in a Newark, N.J., tenement some 80 years ago.
Marcus’s parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and, as was the case in many Jewish families back then, his father joined a union. Marcus credits the union with helping his carpenter father stand up for his rights with a company that was not all that interested in the welfare of its employees.
“He wasn’t being represented well by the company he worked for. The union got him benefits and helped him move ahead,” Marcus told the Forward.
“But,” Marcus said, in his fast-paced, no-nonsense way of talking about the issue, “times change, and I think that employers today are much more enlightened. They understand that if their associates aren’t happy, they don’t produce. There was a time for unions, and there is a time not for unions.”
The changing times are evident in the debate about a current piece of legislation that could be the biggest change to labor law since the days when Marcus’s father was working as a carpenter. The Employee Free Choice Act, which was introduced in both the House and the Senate in March, would change labor law from the 1930s in order to make it easier for unions to organize workers.
Today, as in the ’30s, there are a number of influential Jewish union leaders supporting the legislation. But unlike in the ’30s, a few Jewish voices have surfaced as among the most influential opponents of the legislation. Marcus is frequently mentioned among the leading voices opposing the free choice act. In a famous phone call discussing the legislation with other business executives, he said, “This is how a civilization disappears.” That echoed the words of another child of poor Jewish immigrants, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and Jewish philanthropist who told The Wall Street Journal that EFCA is “one of the two fundamental threats to society,” along with Islamism.
Marcus also has worked closely with the lobbyist leading the anti-EFCA charge, Rick Berman, who has waded into Jewish communal waters to make his argument that the current unions have no connection with the old ones to which Berman’s father belonged.
Many on both sides of the current legislation say that a traditional sympathy for labor that existed in the Jewish community has given way to antipathy in a number of very prominent quarters, with sometimes complicated consequences. Amy Dean, who is active in both the labor world and the Jewish community, says she often encounters people “who have this very warm spot for the labor movement, but it’s sort of romantic and historical. They have these warm feelings for the role of the garment unions, but they think it’s not a modern movement that they want to embrace. We have a huge dissonance within the Jewish community about the labor movement.”
For Berman, this dissonance has appeared in his own family: His son David Berman, a founder of the rock bands Pavement and the Silver Jews, has vociferously attacked his father’s stance on labor unions.
“Jews should always identify with the disadvantaged,” the younger Berman wrote to the Forward. “You cannot ‘graduate’ to a life of self-interest and exploitation.”
Berman, Marcus and Adelson appear to have played a role in halting EFCA’s progress through Congress. While passage looked like a sure thing earlier this year, when Barack Obama took office, the bill’s prospects have dimmed as a number of key senators have announced their opposition to it. It is perhaps fitting that the senator whose opposition represented a turning point was Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, the child of Jewish immigrant parents. People such as Specter and Marcus do not see the issue of EFCA in Jewish terms, but they acknowledge that they are frequently contending with history when they take up the current legislation or any other labor issues.
“I would say that the Jewish community has always been favorably disposed to labor,” Specter told the Forward in an interview. “The Jewish community is a community of immigrants who struggled. My father, one of his favorite sayings in Yiddish was, ‘It’s tough to make a living.’”
“There was that empathy and sympathy built in,” Specter added.
The debate over EFCA is not, in a strict sense, about whether unions are good or bad. The main point of contention with EFCA is how it would change the process through which employees form unions.
Currently, in order to form a union, employees have to first sign cards declaring their interest in joining. Once more than 30% of employees have done this, a company can require a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Unions have long argued that a change is needed because in current practice, the time between the card check and the secret-ballot election gives business owners an opportunity to pressure employees to vote against the union. Like many professors of labor history, Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argued that the current setup is an “employer-controlled election. The analogy is elections held in Stalinist Eastern Europe. If you apply the U.S. State Department’s criteria for free and fair elections, the NLRB elections would fail.”
If EFCA is passed, employees will be able to form a union immediately after 50% of the members of a workplace sign a card; no election needed. The anti-EFCA crowd, including Marcus and Berman, has said that the legislation would deny employees the right to hear the company’s position, and would encourage unions to intimidate employees into signing union cards.
“I don’t think this is a management vs. labor fight,” Berman told the Forward. “When you tell someone you can’t have the other side of the argument presented to you — when you cut off the flow of information — something is wrong.”
It has been EFCA’s promise to end the secret ballot vote that has provoked the most opposition to the bill. Specter, who votes with labor about two-thirds of the time, wrote an article last year drawing attention to the problems with intimidation from both sides during union elections. But in March he announced that the secret-ballot issue made it impossible for him to support EFCA. He was the first in a wave of moderate senators who turned away from the bill.
The argument in favor of maintaining the secret ballot has drawn support from other traditional union supporters, including former senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. But labor activists have pointed out that the campaigns against EFCA have been largely led by people long opposed to unions. The Center for Union Facts, which Berman set up with corporate funding, provides a more general meeting point for foes of unions — its Web site details instances of corruption and intimidation by union leaders. In the Washington Jewish Week, the capital’s local Jewish paper, Berman argued that the Jewish community puts a misplaced emphasis on labor history rather than on the unions of today.
“To the degree the unions paint their mission as a social cause on behalf of the people who have less — and the underdog — it’s easy to identify with,” Berman told the Forward. “There is a tradition in the Jewish community of helping those people. But I’m not sure the follow-through is there from the union side.”
The struggle over the proper Jewish way to regulate relations between employees and employers is certainly not new. The pages of the Talmud contain many meditations on negotiations between Jewish bosses and their employees. During the heyday of Jewish unions in the 1930s, many owners of the garment companies and sweatshops in which Jews worked were themselves Jewish. One of the first Yiddish talking films, “Uncle Moses,” tells the story of immigrant workers who are pushing their Jewish boss — Uncle Moses — to allow them to form a union. Tony Michels, a historian of labor and Jewish community, said that historically within the Jewish community, the voices of the owners tended to get drowned out by those of the workers.
“There are plenty of anti-union Jewish bosses, but the overwhelming tilt was a pro-labor one,” Michels said. “By the ’30s and ’40s, liberalism became a communal religion among Jews.”
This meant that rabbis would often mediate labor disputes between Jewish workers and bosses, and many of the most prominent Jewish business owners at the time — names like Macy and Gimbels — worked closely with unions. Back in 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act was passed, the influential, and heavily Jewish, garment unions in New York City rallied working men and women to provide crucial popular support for the legislation. Historians note that Jews had hardly any presence in groups that opposed the legislation; they were often barred from entering the national business associations.
Since that time, of course, the Jewish community has largely followed the route of Marcus out of the tenements and into the business class. The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that 36% of Jewish households reported income above $75,000 — twice the percentage in the population at large.
There is a widely shared recognition that even as Jews have entered the class of business owners, a warm feeling toward labor unions has often remained. Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute — a leading anti-union consulting firm — said that he has had Jewish clients who have faced blowback from within their community for not allowing unions into their companies.
“The unions and the Jewish community were allied early in the history of unions and they also share political points of view, so those two things lead the average Jewish person who doesn’t really know much about unions to say they are good, which is different than in most other communities,” Wilson told the Forward.
Recently there have been many prominent Jewish business leaders who have worked closely with unions. In Las Vegas, where Adelson has kept his casinos union-free, another Jewish owner, Steve Wynn, led the way in allowing unions into the city. Wynn’s casino, the Mirage, allowed employees to unionize in 1989 without requiring a secret vote, and since then, every casino in the city has followed suit, except for those owned by Adelson. Wynn’s kinder approach to unions does not appear to have hurt his profitability; his casinos — and the gambling industry in Las Vegas — expanded rapidly in the years after casinos there made it easier for employees to join unions.
For business leaders like Adelson and Marcus, the operative history seems to be less the Jewish labor story than the personal one of emerging from poverty. Marcus told the Forward that the reason he has opposed unions is that they halt the sort of financial ascent he experienced.
“I grew up in a tenement. My parents were immigrants. We were poor as hell — and I made it in this world through the free-enterprise system,” Marcus said.
Marcus explained that he became disenchanted with unions early on, when a union representative came to his house to speak with his father. “They told him he was working too hard and setting a bad example for everyone in the firm. That much I remember. My father said: ‘That’s crazy. I work the way I work.’”
At Home Depot, which he co-founded in 1978, Marcus managed to successfully battle a number of efforts to unionize workers. He says this allowed some of his workers to rise to heights that would have been impossible otherwise, pointing to a Jamaican immigrant who began as a cashier at a Home Depot in Miami and worked her way up to become president of the company’s Southern division.
“If she had been union, she never in a hundred million years would have had that job,” Marcus said. “They go by seniority and not quality.”
The characterization of unions by business leaders like Marcus has been vigorously disputed by many labor activists and scholars. Lichtenstein, the labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written extensively about the decline in wages that has accompanied the decline in union membership in America over the past few decades.
“When people talk about how the expansion of unions will be the end of civilization, it is really incredible,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s not as though we didn’t have a thriving union movement through much of the most dramatic economic expansion in this country.”
Nowhere is the dissonance on these points more evident than in the rather personal battle being waged by Berman, the leading lobbyist against unions and EFCA in Washington.
Berman has long been a lightning rod for criticism, thanks to the work that his firm, Berman and Company, has done on behalf of such corporate interests as the tobacco and alcohol industries. Berman’s recent work against unions — his firm has spent $25 million on advertisements against EFCA — has won him enemies not only within the labor movement, but also within his own rather prominent family. In January of this year, his son David announced in an Internet post that he was leaving his latest music project, the Silver Jews. He took the opportunity to launch an attack on his lobbyist father.
“My father is a despicable man,” the younger Berman wrote in the January 22 post on the message board of his record label, Drag City. The first specific charge that Berman levied against his father was that he is a “union buster.” In an e-mail interview with the Forward, David Berman said that his father — and his father’s generation — had become disconnected from the hardship of their grandparents. Both of Rick Berman’s grandfathers worked in the New York garment industry.
“My grandparents are good people, raised by good Jews,” the younger Berman wrote to the Forward, “but their children are just living lives of meaningless acquisition. Within two generations, all memory of injustice is forgotten.”
He wrote that in his own life, one of his best work experiences was at the Whitney Museum of American Art, when he was a member of the Teamsters union.
“I have never been treated so well in a job,” Berman wrote to the Forward. “I was able to save enough money to go to graduate school and since then I have worked for myself.”
Rick Berman was reluctant to talk about the break with his son, saying that it “is an issue that the family is trying to deal with.” But he acknowledged that he has contended with an element of familial history in his own work. He said that when his grandfathers were garment workers, unions were a good thing.
“I think that unions made enormous contributions in lots of industries,” Berman said. “Without a doubt, there was a certain amount of cowboy capitalism that was rampant in the country — and collective bargaining did wring out of the workplace some of the abuses that are now just historical.”
But, Berman argues that unions today have little positive role to play in the American economy. In the current environment, he says that opposition to unions — and to the Employee Free Choice Act — is a virtuous act.
“In some ways, Sheldon Adelson is being more true to Jewish heritage than the guys who are pushing for the passage of this law,” Berman said.
A clip from “Uncle Moses” (1932) is below. Restored and with new English subtitles by The National Center for Jewish Film. Time code version here for research purposes. For public exhibition or DVD purchase, visit www.jewishfilm.org.
Contact Nathaniel Popper at email@example.com.