Street theater, like picketing (here and here), handbilling, and blowing up a union rat, is used by unions to exert pressure on non-union companies. The union’s thought is that if it can make life uncomfortable for the non-union company, then the non-union company will sign a collective bargaining agreement and have its employees become members of a union. In reality, this type of pressure only makes non-union employers more grateful that they don’t have a union and remain firmly committed to union avoidance measures.
Street theater is exactly what it sounds like – acting out a play on the street (or sidewalk, usually). The most common example of street theater is a mock funeral procession. These processions generally include a fake coffin, the grim reaper, maybe someone dressed up as a preacher, funeral music, and solemnity. Although unions claim that the funeral is because their wages are dying or the employer is utilizing non-union contractors, the impact that a mock funeral procession in front of a hospital can be enormous.
Another mock funeral occurred in the recent bargaining dispute that the Communication Workers of America (CWA) had against Verizon. There, the CWA held a mock funeral in front of the home of Verizon’s Chairman, on a quiet residential street. According to the CWA, they were protesting the death of the middle class.
Sometimes the line between street theater and loosely organized mob activity is a thin, blurry one. Take this excerpt from journalist Nina Easton from May, 2010 for example:
Last Sunday, on a peaceful, sun-crisp afternoon, our toddler finally napping upstairs, my front yard exploded with 500 screaming, placard-waving strangers on a mission to intimidate my neighbor, Greg Baer. Baer is deputy general counsel for corporate law at Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), a senior executive based in Washington, D.C. And that — in the minds of the organizers at the politically influential Service Employees International Union and a Chicago outfit called National Political Action — makes his family fair game.
Waving signs denouncing bank “greed,” hordes of invaders poured out of 14 school buses, up Baer’s steps, and onto his front porch. As bullhorns rattled with stories of debtor calls and foreclosed homes, Baer’s teenage son Jack — alone in the house — locked himself in the bathroom. “When are they going to leave?” Jack pleaded when I called to check on him…
Now this event would accurately be called a “protest” if it were taking place at, say, a bank or the U.S. Capitol. But when hundreds of loud and angry strangers are descending on your family, your children, and your home, a more apt description of this assemblage would be “mob.” Intimidation was the whole point of this exercise, and it worked-even on the police. A trio of officers who belatedly answered our calls confessed a fear that arrests might “incite” these trespassers.
According to Easton, Baer is … a lifelong Democrat. For her trouble in reporting on this, she’s naturally been smeared by the left. As for why SEIU is singling out Bank of America for thug tactics, supposedly it’s a protest of foreclosures by banks generally but Big Journalism notes that the union apparently owes BoA $90 million, which, per Easton, means $4 million in outstanding interest and fees. Terrorizing an exec’s family might make them think twice about being too insistent in collecting.
Even the “Occupy Wall Street” (and later “Occupy Every Suburb in America”) movement was a form of street theater. Once labor unions got involved, the protestors donned zombie-like outfits and marched as if afflicted with rigormortis to demonstrate the death of the middle class and their own future.
As you can tell, street theater is creative. It can be entertaining, but it can also be extremely disruptive. The more disruptive and coercive the skit, the less likely it will be considered a form of picketing.
Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio employment lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. Matt can be reached by email at Matt.Austin@Austin-Legal.com or by phone at 614.285.5342.