Around 1994, workers at a battery factory in South Carolina started talking about forming a union. The International Union of Electrical Workers began to build support at the factory, which manufactured giant batteries to power forklifts and lend back-up power to cellphone towers. A year later, the workers voted to successfully unionize.
EnerSys, the battery manufacturer, was livid. They eventually called a powerful New York law firm, Jackson Lewis, for help.
With Jackson Lewis’ assistance, EnerSys launched a decade-long war against the union, firing labor leaders and moving production to nonunion plants. In 2001, EnerSys shuttered the factory, giving no notice. The National Labor Relations Board accused EnerSys of breaking the law; the company eventually agreed to pay $7.75 million to settle the board’s complaints and the union’s lawsuits over failure to pay bonuses or give notice of the layoffs.
Afterwards, EnerSys turned around and sued Jackson Lewis, blaming the firm for malpractice and advising them to engage in illegal behavior. Jackson Lewis said the company ignored its proper advice and wanted to avoid a bill. They eventually settled.
Now Jackson Lewis, through a political action committee formed last year, apparently wants a toehold in New York politics. And their reputation hasn’t stopped a bevy of pro-union New York Democrats from taking their cash.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who works closely with the most powerful unions in the state, took $20,000 from Jackson Lewis’ PAC in January, according to campaign finance records. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former labor organizer and a proud liberal, received $1,000. The campaign arm for the State Senate Democrats, along with their leader Mike Gianaris, took in $1,000 each.
Lower-level Democrats who would normally distance themselves from any entity with a history of anti-labor work also raked in cash from Jackson Lewis. Council members Dan Garodnick, Rory Lancman, Robert Cornegy, Jimmy Van Bramer and Mark Levine received between $250 and $500 each. Cornegy, Van Bramer and Levine have all expressed interest in running for City Council speaker.
A spokeswoman for Jackson Lewis, Lara Hamm, said the PAC was set up because the firm acquired the government relations practice of one of the top lobbyists in the state, Wilson Elser. Wilson Elser’s clients have included Tishman Speyer, the influential real estate firm, the New York Gaming Association, and NYU.
Hamm didn’t make anyone from Jackson Lewis available for comment on their foray into city and state politics. It’s unclear whether the firm intends to advise new clients on union-busting in New York State, where the climate is far more favorable to organized labor than in South Carolina.
For Jackson Lewis, the South Carolina episode was only an anomaly because a client walked away dissatisfied. The law firm is one of the oldest and most successful when it comes to the arcane practice of union avoidance. “It is widely known as one of the most aggressively anti-union law firms in the U.S.,” Steven Greenhouse, a prominent reporter covering labor issues, told the Voice.
Union-busting actually represents a smaller share of Jackson Lewis’ work than it once did because unions have been on such precipitous decline nationwide, said John Logan, a professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. When a company wants to stop their employees from organizing and hires Jackson Lewis, the firm “basically runs the entire show,” Logan said. “They’re writing speeches, training supervisors, making video and websites to convey the anti-union message. They script everything.”
In recent years, Jackson Lewis has represented the Scandinavian furniture giant Ikea as workers attempted a unionization drive. They also assisted Ivy League colleges when their adjuncts wanted to organize.
The New York Democrats who took cash from Jackson Lewis either defended their pro-labor records, expressed a lack of knowledge of Jackson Lewis’ past, or didn’t return requests for comment. Spokespersons for Mark-Viverito and the Senate Democrats wouldn’t comment on the record.
Basil Smikle, the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and spokesperson for Cuomo’s campaign, said contributions wouldn’t affect the governor’s policies.
“The Governor made New York the first state in country to pass $15 minimum wage, enacted the nation’s strongest paid family leave program, has taken every effort to secure and protect union jobs, and established a worker exploitation task force which has recovered $4 million in back wages to thousands,” Mr. Smikle said in a statement. “No contribution of any size can conflict with his record of accomplishment on labor rights.”
One Democrat actually justified accepting Jackson Lewis’ money. Councilman Rory Lancman, a Queens lawmaker, said his friendship with one of Jackson Lewis’ principals, former Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, overrode any concerns about the firm’s anti-union work.
“Their new government relations practice has many good clients who I’m sure support the good work I do, and Jonathan Bing is a friend and former colleague,” Lancman said.