It was a nasty, ugly, three-year, million-dollar war I did not ask for, but had to win. Otherwise, the business I loved would be infiltrated by a scheming labor union determined to undermine employee privacy rights and destroy my version of the American Dream.
What is this dream? Some may say it is a matter of freedom permitting every citizen in America the right to pursue the good life through free choice and hard work. Others use the term “equal opportunity” to describe the dream, that all people should have the same chance to compete for any job without prejudice or threat. This way talent and skill become the tools of those who may succeed and discover peace and tranquility in their lives through a loving family, a comfortable wage, a nice place to live, and lasting friendships. Such a meaning coincides with the first use of the term by James Truslow in his 1931 book, Epic of America: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
Perhaps the Founding Fathers explained The American Dream best through the words, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Such is only possible when no restrictions occur regarding any sort of class system, religion affiliation or none, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity. Absent also must be the evils of greed, force, and power for such things inhibit anyone’s chance to live the dream. This is why some sort of spiritual foundation is important permitting a standard with which to evaluate conduct. This permits moral and ethical benchmarks to guide one’s behavior whether it involves personal choice, or business decisions.
During a time of economic strife, many have lost their belief that The American Dream is even possible based on several factors including loss of hope and lack of faith. Polls conducted by Business Week and CNN during the past two years or so indicated that from fifty percent to two-thirds of those polled believed the dream was not achievable. Based on these perspectives, politicians during the 2008 Presidential election seized on the term, with President-elect Barack Obama mentioning it often during the campaign, and at the Democratic Convention by comparing the phrase to basic “promises” with each person having the “freedom to make of our own lives what we will” while treating “each other with dignity and respect.” Referencing businesses, he said, “[They] should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.” I couldn’t agree more.
Whatever standard is used to define The American Dream, my station in life as the year 2006 rolled around certainly qualified me for having achieved this dream as one who had played by” the rules of the road” in the true spirit of entrepreneurship. Starting with no customers, no office, and little capital to support the venture in 1989, I now owned a commercial cleaning, facility maintenance and security business (nearly 5000 employees in thirty-three states), Executive Management Services, (EMS), based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Customers included nearly 50 Fortune 500 companies - UPS, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, General Electric, State Farm Insurance, Dow Chemical, and Verizon.
Times were good as I enjoyed a loving wife and family including three children, a warm and comfortable home, good friends, and terrific relationships with both our company management team and the hourly-wage employees, 70% of whom were full-time. We provided workers above-scale wages, vacation and holiday pay, and covered 80% of their health care costs while combating the hiring of illegal aliens with a strict background check system.
My spiritual compass was provided through Catholic beliefs as a member of Holy Spirit at Geist Parish and a personal code of conduct Christ like in nature. I was involved in our local community as a volunteer and financial supporter for various charities including Indianapolis’ critically acclaimed Children’s Museum as well as the Special Olympics. EMS held an annual company golf tournament to raise funds for the YMCA “Kids under Construction" project, St. Mary's Child Center, and the Autism Advocates of Indiana. A second tournament called The Pete Dye Classic benefited the nationally acclaimed Riley Hospital For Children.
On the employee front, EMS hired mentally challenged people from Goodwill Industries, and helped to fight muscular dystrophy resulting in our receiving the Golden Handcuff Award. Along the way, in 1995, Senator Richard Lugar recognized EMS as one of the fasted growing companies in Indiana, and the City of Indianapolis honored EMS with the Eagle Award for its keen foresight and powerful wings that made it a success story. One year I was a finalist for the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, an honor I sincerely appreciated since being an entrepreneur who started a company with nothing and helped it grow and sustain was indeed a special honor in itself.
Another benefit of owning our own business was the chance to incorporate family into the equation. One by one, those we loved had joined EMS in some capacity. These included my wife Barbara, brother-in-law Ray, sister Nancy, son Mark, daughter Kelly, son-in-law Matt, and even my father Robert. We were truly a “family business” in any sense of the term and this family extended to our management colleagues and front-line employees.
While we were proud of our achievements, EMS was certainly not going to change the world, but we were doing our part as a quality company with the motto, “We don’t just clean, we manage.” The big shot in our industry was ABM, and we were never going to topple them from power. In fact, we didn’t want to do so. Instead, we concentrated on our focused businesses, cleaning services for buildings and plants, distribution of Barrett Supplies and Equipment (high quality chemicals, equipment and commodities), security deployment through Delta Security Services, for fifty-plus years a star in that industry. With offices in such states as Missouri, Georgia, Kansas, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas, and Arizona, we were proud of our customer service and spotless record as a provider of an important service to building and plant owners around the country.
Perhaps my proudest achievement aside from working with top management people who had been with the company an average of fifteen years, was the special relationship with EMS employees. Many of them did not have the chance to obtain university, college, junior college, technical, or even high school education, but they were good workers who believed in quality and working hard. How pleased I was that EMS could provide them with good paying jobs with terrific benefits leading to loyalty since many of the employees had been with me for several years. It was never an “us” or “them” situation with me, it was “us,” and “them,” since we could not be successful without their help in providing the top customer service we rendered on a daily basis. This resulted in EMS being known as good place to work where employees received a square deal.
Since its creation, EMS had been union-free. In fact, the employees and I worked in an environment where freedom was the priority. I could run my company as I saw fit with input from both management colleagues, and the employees could work in a free choice atmosphere without any threats to their security or safety. During nearly twenty years of being in business, I had not even considered the possibility that our employees were interest in a third party representative (a union), since I had never been approached about any such development. If there had been interest, I would have gladly worked with the employees under the time-tested and preserved right to vote in secret with no threat of repercussion based on an employee’s choice. This is how general elections are held. Why should a union election be any different? Soon an interloper (the SEIU) would appear who believed that the basic American right to vote privately was unfair, mainly to the SEIU's financial well-being!
Together, the employees and management co-existed in our little corner of the world with wages more than a dollar an hour more than the union was providing its members, and benefits fair to everyone. We did our best to do a good job for our customers, and used the money we earned to pay our bills, educate our children, provide for our families, and help those who were experiencing difficult times. A simple situation really, with management and employees happy and carefree, living at least what many would call The American Dream.
If you can imagine this scenario, then try to imagine what it was like when one day this peaceful world was interrupted by the knowledge that EMS was about to be invaded by an outside adversary threatening to turn this world of ours upside down. One minute, we were enjoying the fruits of our labors minding our own business, and the next attacks begin lambasting the company as a “rat contractor” that cleaned buildings dubbed “Houses of Horror” for janitors who were exploited, intimidated, threatened, and abused all in the name of corporate greed. For the first time in our history, multiple National Labor Relations Board filings, frivolous charges with questionable evidence, would be filed against us for employee rights violations and for firing union supporters as the EMS image was dragged through the mud.
As for me, I would be called deceitful, greedy, anti-union, and downright evil as noisy demonstrations and protests began popping up at buildings across the country where we managed the cleaning process. Letters packed with insults were sent to customers telling them what a scoundrel I was, one who profited from paying poverty wages. Based on these characterizations, imagine if you will, how you would feel when a sledgehammer begins to pound at your very being and you realize a large headache is about to infiltrate your brain for a long time to come. If you can imagine this situation, then you can relate as to how it felt when a super-charged, powerful, politically-connected, well-funded labor union, specifically the Service Employees International Union (the SEIU), decided to target us and wage war with a company that for almost twenty years had treated its employees with respect and dignity and those employees, with few exceptions, to a person, wanted no part of union organization within the company. Clergy groups, activist organizations, and even the Islamic community would enter the fray in support of our enemy, armed as they were with less than the truth but a belief we were the bad guys and not the union. News of the war would spread to London and beyond as the battle escalated by the day.
But wait, during a war dubbed by the union as a "Corporate Campaign" against EMS that would last three years and more, there was a ready aspirin-like remedy possible to cure this headache of mine. All I had to do was to cave in to the union’s demand that I sign a “Neutrality Agreement” indicating my agreement to “establish a recognition procedure for all of the company’s non-supervisory janitorial employees.” Even though this sounds innocent enough, it would have eliminated my employees’ ability to vote through the historically important American right to the secret-ballot election. Instead, the procedure dubbed “check card” would have been used to determine if a majority of the employees (50% + 1) wanted union representation. In essence, the Neutrality Agreement was simply a precursor for something called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legislation currently being considered by Congress.
If I signed the document placed in front of me, I would instantly be transformed in the union’s eyes from an ogre and threat to the union movement to the best friend of the union president, Andy Stern. In effect, the union would view me as one who truly cared about and loved his employees, characteristics that were already true despite allegations to the contrary. No longer would I risk losing customers and ultimately be forced to layoff management and valued employees, or even potentially face bankruptcy due to lost revenues. Sign the paper and cave in to union demands as many other businesses had done during the SEIU’s assault on our industry, and my troubles were over. I would become a member of the “responsible contractor” family, the union’s euphemism for a union contractor.
Yes, just a signature on a piece of paper, just one stroke of the pen, and my American Dream could continue without interruption. No more threats, intimidation, sullying of my reputation or the company’s, no more filing of unwarranted complaints with government agencies such as the NLRB or OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration), and no more angry words with union leaders since the SEIU could attempt to organize my employees using the card check method. All I had to do was say “yes,” but I couldn’t, simply couldn’t sign that paper since doing so would have been against everything I believe in as an American citizen in a democratic country governed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If I signed, I knew I would lose every bit of respect for myself, and the respect of those who knew what kind of a true patriot I was. With this in mind, I said “No,” and shortly thereafter the war began in earnest, an ugly, costly, nasty, demeaning, no-holds-barred war threatening to ruin the company I loved. Yes, at risk was my American Dream; everything I had worked for from the day I started with nothing more than a willingness to work hard and build a business worth savoring. Threatened with destruction of that business, I decided to fight back against the devil at my doorstep, Andy Stern and the Services Employees International Union.