BOSS NADER - or how I was fired by Ralph Nader for union organizing and lived to tell about it
This is the best account of how I was fired in 1984 by Ralph Nader for, among other things, organizing a union in one of his shops. I still stand behind what I told the Left Business Observer during the 1996 election, when Nader began his foolish runs for the presidency that, in 2000, helped elect Bush and Cheney. "First, Nader's campaign against me was incredibly vicious. His top aides spread all kinds of rumors about me in Washington and managed to get me pretty well blacklisted from the public interest crowd (which actually was a good thing). They even tried to convince people I was a communist (!!!) out to subvert Nader's organizations. Ralph Nader may look like a democrat, smell like a populist, and sound like a socialist - but deep down he's a frightened, petit bourgeois moralizer without a political compass, more concerned with his image than the movement he claims to lead: in short, an opportunist, a liberal hack. And a scab."
By John Maggs
National Journal (6/5/2004)
Copyright 2004 The National Journal, Inc.
Ralph Nader isn't anti-business -- he is himself a businessman, a successful entrepreneur who over the decades built an empire of nonprofit corporations that sell things, earn money, pay their bills, and grow. Like many founders, Nader has a great talent for marketing, and he's helped create some well-regarded brands -- Public Citizen and Congress Watch, for example.
Likewise, Nader isn't an enemy of capitalism, but of what he sees as one of capitalism's regrettable byproducts -- the mega-corporation. His campaign for president, like his 40-year career in public life, is based on a belief that big and ever-bigger corporations are destroying what should be a natural balance in our capitalistic society -- the balance between consumer and producer, between citizen and government, and between labor and management.
Labor unions have made it clear that Democrat John Kerry will be getting all their money and effort this year, but the truth is that labor doesn't have a more loyal friend in the race than Nader. Like anyone in government, Kerry has engaged in legislative tradeoffs, and some of Kerry's concessions have occasionally compromised labor's interests. But Nader, unencumbered by the desire to cut deals, has stuck to his guns on even unpopular union crusades.
Nader wasn't focused on labor issues in the 1960s, when union strength was near its height, but he has grown increasingly focused as union membership and influence have dwindled and corporations, in his view, have become much more powerful. Even though union leaders are shunning him, Nader has many union activists in his ranks, and he usually has something to say in his stump speeches about labor-management disputes.
During his presidential run in 2000, Nader laid out his view that union organizing is an important friction point between citizens and mega-corporations: "Employing union-busting consultants and motivated by an anything-goes, anti-union animus, employers regularly confront union-organizing campaigns with threats to close plants; harassment, intimidation, and firings of key union supporters; captive meetings; supervisor one-on-one meetings with fearful employees; threatening literature; use of surveillance technologies; and much more." Nader also said, "Although it is illegal for employers to fire workers for supporting a union, approximately one in 10 union supporters in union-organizing drives are, in fact, fired."
As it turns out, Nader as a nonprofit entrepreneur has had his own experience with union organizing -- from the employer's side. In one case, unhappy workers at Public Citizen were persuaded to drop their drive to hold a vote on affiliating with the United Auto Workers, and an in-house union was created that over the years won important benefits and worker protections for employees. But in another case, labor-management relations weren't so smooth.
Amid a dispute with the staff of one of his flagship publications in 1984 over its editorial content and a bid by staff members to form a union, Nader responded with the same kind of tactics that he has elsewhere condemned: He fired the staff, changed the locks at the office, unsuccessfully tried to have one employee arrested, and hired permanent replacements.
When the fired workers appealed the action to federal authorities, Nader filed a countersuit. Applying a legal tactic that employers commonly use to resist union-organizing efforts, Nader claimed that the fired workers were trying to appropriate his business. Nader spurned efforts by other progressives to mediate the fight, and he refused an offer to settle the litigation by simply signing a declaration that his workers thenceforth would have the right to organize.
"I was shocked by how Ralph acted," said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, who tried to mediate the dispute. "He seemed unable to see how this conflicted with his ideals." Cavanagh, who says he likes and respects Nader and supported his 2000 presidential run, said he was particularly surprised that Nader refused a dialogue on the dispute: "That's not the way progressives are supposed to act."
Accounts differ on what happened in 1984, as do Nader's own accounts between then and now of whether his employees have the same rights as factory workers to organize. As Nader mounts his third run for the White House, his career as a crusader and gadfly is well known, but little has been written about his style as a manager. Even supporters concede that he is a strict taskmaster, with a sometimes obsessive attention to detail. "I think that what happened [with the magazine] said more about Ralph's limitations as a manager rather than any hostility to unions," said one longtime employee of a Nader-affiliated organization. "It is his baby, and he wants to run things his way."
The magazine was Multinational Monitor. The monthly publication still serves as a primary venue for Nader's argument that globalization has allowed big corporations to amass an excess of power. Just before firing the three-person staff in 1984, Nader transferred control of Multinational Monitor to a nonprofit corporation called Essential Information. As with many other organizations that Nader founded and continues to influence, he has no direct role in Essential Information. John Richard, one of Nader's key aides in 1984, helped carry out the firings and continues to serve as the company's chief executive. Richard says that Nader no longer has any connection to Essential Information, but its Web site includes links to other Nader affiliates and to Nader's personal Web page.
Through campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese, Nader declined to comment at length on the 20-year-old conflict. According to what Zeese said that Nader told him, Nader recalls the incident as a professional dispute with the magazine's staff. Nader said the staff had defied his instructions and that the unionization effort was a ploy after the decision had already been made to fire the workers. Zeese said that Nader has always supported the right of his employees to organize.
But that's not what Nader said at the time. In a June 1984 article in The Washington Post, Nader said his employees and others at nonprofit organizations don't have a need to organize. "I don't think there is a role for unions in small nonprofit 'cause' organizations any more than ... within a monastery or within a union" itself, he said. "People shouldn't be in public-interest groups unless they believe in it and are ready to work for it." Early on in his career, Nader said, "I worked weekend after weekend after weekend... Now people come here and say they want to fight polluters and unresponsive agencies, but not after 5 o'clock and not on weekends."
Many employers, especially those who build small companies from the ground up, feel the same way about their businesses. But U.S. labor law is clear -- two or more employees can file a letter with National Labor Relations Board noting their intention to try to form a union, and, in theory, they are immediately protected from firing and other retaliatory actions while the case is pending. In practice, however, years of litigation await workers who pursue these cases, even when management doesn't pursue a countersuit.
In 1984, Tim Shorrock was exactly the kind of crusading journalist that Nader often attracted to his publications. At 33, he was just beginning a career as a reporter that would see him write about foreign affairs, human rights, labor issues, and progressive causes for The Nation and other publications. (Shorrock and I worked for the same publication in the mid-1990s, which is when I first heard his story about working for Nader. I hadn't spoken with him for several years before contacting him for this article.) Shorrock considered the top editing job at Multinational Monitor a great opportunity. With a staff of two others -- Kathleen Selvaggio and Rose-Marie Audette -- Shorrock did everything from writing the stories to supervising the printing.
A son of missionaries, Shorrock had grown up in South Korea and Japan and retained an interest in America's role in South Korea, which had yet to emerge from decades of U.S.-sponsored dictatorship. This interest led him to what proved to be a big story -- the news that federal authorities were investigating whether giant contractor Bechtel had paid bribes to South Korean officials while then-Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were top Bechtel officials. Shorrock says that Nader, who often read the magazine's copy in advance, was unreachable when the magazine's deadline came. Since Nader had also been absent at some deadlines in the past, Shorrock printed the story. Newspapers and television quickly pounced on the news, which portrayed exactly the kind of corporate malfeasance that Nader was targeting, and the attention raised the profile of Multinational Monitor. This was the kind of publicity that was supposed to attract fundraising for Nader's anti-corporate cause.
But Nader wasn't pleased. He was furious. Shorrock said that, at first, Nader seemed to be overreacting to what Shorrock saw as a misunderstanding about the final editing on a story that other news stories later validated. But then, Shorrock said, Nader started complaining that the story unfairly maligned Weinberger, who had been general counsel of Bechtel during the period when investigators were looking into South Korean bribes. In 1985, a U.S. News & World Report story on odd friendships in Washington mentioned Weinberger and Nader. The story said that Nader had recommended to Weinberger a former protege who later ended up as Weinberger's deputy at Defense. Richard says today that Nader was a fearless opponent of the Reagan administration and elsewhere criticized Weinberger along with other Reagan appointees. Richard says that Shorrock willfully defied Nader's instructions to hold the story. Richard produced an August 14, 1984, letter to subscribers that said that management had offered to bargain collectively with workers.
Shorrock said Nader had publicly disavowed the Bechtel story to other reporters and was making it clear that he thought the Monitor's staff had defied his orders and would have to leave. Shorrock had experienced Nader's temper before, and he hoped that the furor would die down. And Nader took no immediate action -- he continued to pay the staff's salaries, and the staff continued to put out the magazine for three months. In June, when Shorrock got word that Nader was planning to transfer the Monitor's control to Richard and Essential Information, he said that he and Selvaggio and Audette decided to seek collective bargaining rights through the National Labor Relations Board. (Audette, an attorney, declined to comment for this article.) Sending a copy of this filing to Nader brought swift action, Shorrock said. The next day, Richard and another Nader aide told the three workers they were fired and gave them until the end of the day to clean out their desks. While locksmiths changed the locks on the office door, Shorrock said, he cleaned out his files, including documents relating to the Bechtel story. Shorrock soon got a call from the District of Columbia police. Nader charged that Shorrock had stolen proprietary information from the Monitor. Shorrock said he was interviewed by an assistant U.S. attorney who told him that there was no basis for the charges, which were not pursued further.
At this point, several figures in the progressive movement tried to intervene to mediate the dispute. One of them, Cavanagh, said that Nader's displeasure clearly seemed to be with the proposal to form a union, not differences of opinion over the handling of the Bechtel story. "That's what I found most disturbing," Cavanagh said. "Ralph really had this feeling that people fighting for progressive causes had no need for unions."
Kathleen Selvaggio, now an international policy adviser at Catholic Relief Services, confirmed the basic details of Shorrock's version of the story and laughed when told that Richard said he had offered to bargain collectively with workers. Richard also said that Selvaggio and Audette were fired because they wouldn't turn over company information. "That was a pretext," Selvaggio said in response to that information. "We had filed the [NLRB] letter a day or two before, and John Richard had made it pretty clear that he was responding to that." Selvaggio says that Nader had transferred the magazine to another company "because he didn't want to get his hands dirty." Richard, she said, had always been straightforward in saying that he was working on behalf of Nader.
Selvaggio, who has spent her adult life working in nonprofits, has elsewhere heard the argument that Nader made in 1984 in opposing unions. "There is a little truth in it, that we all don't do this work to make a lot of money, and it is not like working in factory," she said. But when employers take advantage of employees, she said, "when they try to threaten their jobs, then anyone has a right to try to protect themselves."
Selvaggio echoed the idea that the firing of the staff had a good deal to do with Nader's need to control things. "He really was a micromanager." But at the same time, she said, Nader and others around "didn't want their workers to organize."
Despite her bad memories of the 1984 incident and after a lot of deliberation, Selvaggio says she voted for Nader in 2000. "I was voting in Maryland, which I knew was going to go Democratic," and thus her vote wasn't going to be decisive. "Nader still stands for a lot of things I believe in." At the same time in 1984, a better-known corner of the Nader empire was considering a similar vote on unionization. Public Citizen employees were unhappy with the lack of benefits and with the demands that managers placed on them. There was discussion of a referendum on affiliating with an outside union, according to Paul Levy, who is still an attorney with the group. Echoing Cavanagh and Nader's own arguments in The Post, Levy said the top managers of Public Citizen told the staff in 1984 that they had no need for a union, because the organization was run differently from a business. "They seemed to think that they were immune from labor-management conflict," Levy said. In the end, managers persuaded the staff to form an in-house union that didn't push as hard for pay raises and benefits, Levy said, but seemed to satisfy most workers.
Until recently, that is. Earlier this year, Public Citizen workers narrowly voted to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union. Levy said that employees at some of the faster-growing parts of Public Citizen, including Global Trade Watch, had become unhappy with their managers.
Shorrock and his staff pursued their 1984 complaint with the NLRB, as Nader pursued his countersuit. Shorrock said he and his colleagues offered to drop their case if Nader would drop his and sign a statement that in the future, his employees would have the right to unionize. Nader refused, but one of his top aides ultimately signed it, and the two suits were dropped about two years later, Shorrock said. Richard said that Shorrock was a disgruntled employee who was leaning on labor laws to avoid being fired for just cause. He said that all of the people who work for Essential Information are free to unionize. None have tried to do so, however, since 1984. Zeese said that Nader was too busy with his presidential campaign to respond for this story. Nader has a long public record of support for workers and unions, he said: "I think it is laughable to suggest that Ralph Nader is some kind of union-buster."