New York Daily News

Labor 'Rats' Take on Big Cheeses

By Tom Robbins

Monday, June 14, 1999

The labor relations seminar underway in the midtown hotel suite was interrupted at 3 p.m. Thursday by the sound of shrill whistles and chanting from the street below.

Everyone in the room stopped and listened.

They got up from their tables and walked to the window. Below, at the corner of 52nd St. and Seventh Ave., was a cluster of 100 men and women brought there by the city's Central Labor Council, blowing whistles and standing around two large, inflated gray rats. One rat wore a sign with the name "Jackson" on it, the other bore a sign with the name "Lewis." The chant was mostly garbled, but the words "union buster" came through clearly.

To labor unions, the name "Jackson Lewis" is as welcome as a rodent in a restaurant. The law firm has spent three decades honing a reputation for a no-nonsense, pro-management approach to workplace issues. One of the surest ways for employers to send a get-tough message to unions is to have a representative of Jackson Lewis sit down at the bargaining table. The firm has 20 offices, from Seattle to Long Island, and 325 attorneys. Its lawyers also teach seminars such as the one held last week at the Manhattan Club on 52nd St. The title for the two-day event was "How to Stay Union-Free Into the 21st Century." About 20 companies plunked down $1,295 to have executives pick up useful tips.

Promotional literature for the seminar promised hard-edged lessons: "The Management Perspective . . . This cram session makes no pretense at being impartial." And: "No-Holds-Barred Content. Please note: The discussion will be frank. The use of recording devices is strictly prohibited . . . Individuals affiliated with labor organizations are not eligible." Despite the ban, an individual affiliated with a labor organization had appeared that morning with a check for the full fee and been accepted warmly. The individual was busy taking copious notes when the noise from the rally below prompted a sudden stop to the anti-labor meeting.

Finally, one of the seminar instructors spoke up. "Ignore them. They'll hoot and holler to get it out of their system, and then they'll go," he said. "I guarantee they won't stay past 4 p.m. Unions never work late." There were a few chuckles. Earlier in the session, an instructor told the class to "think of unions as a guy named 'Big Louie.' There is one behind every union," he said. "Those days aren't gone. The Big Louies are still out there."

Students heard a step-by-step description of a Jackson Lewis campaign to frustrate a Teamsters organizing drive at an airline food preparation company. An old tape of an AFL-CIO "Union Yes" campaign was played and critiqued. A teacher described one counter-union strategy as "litigation by ambush." Outside, the chanting went on past 4 p.m. "We're going to close an hour early," said a seminar instructor. "Just for safety's sake."

On Friday, following complaints from hotel managers, the sessions were moved to Jackson Lewis' Park Ave. offices. The rats followed. In the conference room, the lawyers got suspicious. "If there is anyone in the room who would like to go downstairs and join them, go ahead," said an instructor.

The students giggled.

Jackson Lewis representatives declined comment.

Former carpenters union lawyer Bernard Cohen, who recently pleaded guilty to union-related offenses, did not admit stealing from the union, as reported here last week. In a plea-bargain agreement, he pleaded guilty to falsifying business records - a felony - and violating state election laws.

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