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Union Buster Turns to 'a Labor of Love' : His work was ruthless: Teach companies dirty tricks to thwart labor organizers. Marty Levitt now seeks salvation by helping those he hurt.

September 05, 1993|BOB BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For hours I lay awake. . .my semi-conscious mind brought me bodies--arms and legs and torsos of people, some dressed in dirty factory clothes, others in starched white uniforms, some in ill-fitted dresses. But no faces. . .A hundred gray men walked together, slowly, coming closer and closer. . .But no faces. Not one. God, no! Please! Just one face. Twenty years. Twenty years worth of victims and not one I could remember.

From "Confessions of a Union Buster"

*

Lying in an alcoholic rehabilitation hospital in Minnesota, the pudgy little man with the golden tongue had finally found something he couldn't talk his way out of.

He was, at last, beginning to think about all the people he'd screwed over, people who'd had the audacity to try to join a labor union.

Marty Levitt, a 43-year-old minor-league "union buster" who had devoted his adult life to helping crush organizing drives--from a Michigan sausage factory to a Maine paper plant--was having a major-league midlife crisis.

He'd spent his life fooling people, hiding his insecurities behind Scotch and an astonishing gift for feigned earnestness, a gift so strong you could rarely tell where the sincerity ended and Marty's bull began.

A B.S. artist, they called him, and he relished the epithet. Slick and quick, down and dirty, he boasted. The best consultant a company could hire when employees got disgruntled or malleable enough to sign those little National Labor Relations Board cards requesting a government-supervised union election.

Levitt was no ivory-tower guy, no lawyer. He knew what laws to evade, what threats to make, which workers to intimidate, snoop on or fire to defeat an organizing drive. This wasn't about the law. It was about winning.

He got work, $15,000 a month in his prime, because companies believed their survival was at stake. He fancied himself an industrial marriage counselor who kept bosses and their workers from tumbling into the confrontational hell of organized labor.

But as he lay in bed in 1987, struggling to recall the face of one worker, any worker, it dawned on Levitt that he could no longer fool himself. He had to do something, some act of redemption. Wasn't that the eighth step of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program, making amends to those you'd hurt? Some grand metamorphosis. Something . . .

*

On a Saturday morning four years later in the cafeteria of Los Angeles Trade Tech, a man wearing the AFL-CIO's "Union Yes" button on his sports jacket stands before 60 men and women, mostly staffers or rank-and-file members of a variety of L.A. unions.

His voice is mellifluous and controlled, deejay smooth: "I come to you from an extremely dirty business."

He paces with grand poise while he talks without notes: "I come out of an industry of thieves, where there is no honor. There's a very tragic epidemic in this country called union busting. It's a disease. It preys on the ignorance, ego, greed and fear of every employer."

The union men and women, taking a weekly extension course on how to improve organized labor's public image, aren't quite sure what to make of him. He doesn't look like them. Their faces display the emotional and physical harshness of working life, of jobs where you take orders; he has soft, unlined features and graying blond hair. They are partly repelled, partly skeptical, partly fascinated.

Marty Levitt, dishonored veteran of an industrial guerrilla war, has switched trenches.

He's trying--amid much cynicism--to make a living as a consultant to unions, teaching them how to anticipate and counter the hardball tactics of what business consultants euphemistically call the "union-avoidance" movement.

His autobiography, "Confessions of a Union Buster," will hit the bookstores Wednesday. A producer is trying to turn his life into a TV movie. Levitt says he's solved the drinking problem that five times led him to rehab centers. Now living in Concord, Calif., he's ready to share his trade secrets with the beleaguered organized labor movement, which today represents less than one-eighth of America's private-sector workers--down from a one-third share in the 1950s.

It's as though Darryl Gates quit as Los Angeles police chief and simultaneously joined the American Civil Liberties Union. Levitt is calmly confessing to the working class that his mission was to subvert the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guarantees the right of employees to unionize without employer interference. He's talking about how he disrupted union gatherings. How he routinely flooded workplaces with flyers unfairly portraying unions as devious, cash-hungry organizations that wanted workers only for their dues.

Levitt has been trying to sell himself as a union consultant for several years, with relatively little success and one long interruption to dry out.

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