WASHINGTON - Big labor, once defined by marches and strikes, is relying more on guile and theatrics to attack the ascendancy of a new form of corporate ownership: private equity.
And tactics often get personal. Allies of the Service Employees International Union staged a satire outside buyout king Henry Kravis' lavish Long Island home, asking passers-by to sign a petition to give him a break on his property taxes.
Weeks later, protesters in business suits sneaked into a private-equity conference at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, where Carlyle Group co-founder David M. Rubenstein was giving a speech. They carried a banner that read: "Why does he pay taxes at a lower rate than the hotel's doorman?"
Carlyle spokesman Chris Ullman attributed the SEIU's recent attention to its desire to organize 60,000 workers at the former Manor Care Inc., a Toledo-based nursing-home company that it acquired last year.
Private-equity executives say unions want to force employers to waive their rights to insist on a secret ballot on union representation.
Unions want to be able to organize a workplace by gaining the signatures of a majority of employees; executives say signatures could be coerced.
Union leaders say they increasingly worry that private-equity firms will try to salvage their investments by pressuring management to cut jobs or benefits.
And the deal makers are in New York or Washington, away from most of their acquisitions' employees.
"Our country and the rest of the world are living through the most profound, significant, and transformative revolution in the history of the world," said Andy Stern, president of The SEIU, which represents 1.9 million janitors, security guards, health-care workers, and others. "What we are seeing is the growth of a new form of capitalism."
In the United States alone, there were 881 buyouts worth a total of $390 billion in 2006 and 752 deals totaling $397 billion in 2007, according to Dealogic, an analytical firm.
The buyout firms note that even as the SEIU blasts them, it benefits from private equity. The union's New York affiliate, 1199, has given Carlyle $15 million to manage its pension fund.
The SEIU said the money has been in a Carlyle buyout fund since 2005, before the buyout campaign.