TThe nation’s anti-union consultants and lawyers — who have made millions of dollars fighting union campaigns — are just coming off some of their worst weeks ever, as unions at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, the New York Times, MIT and other sets hauled in profits .
These advisers and lawyers — often dubbed “union busters” — have fared so badly that John Logan, a professor who has studied “union avoidance” efforts for two decades, says their anti-union kryptonite suddenly lost much of its potency seems to have. “For decades, the consultants have seemed almost invincible. Many companies can boast a 95%+ success rate,” said Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University. But in Staten Island, the Amazon Labor Union “turned the tables on the company’s anti-union consultants” and showed that they may have been “a liability rather than a benefit.”
Logan said anti-union advisers are often not as effective because workers and their attitudes have changed: workers, especially younger workers, are bolder to speak up, they use social media to outmaneuver the advisers, and they Employ high-efficiency strategies such as organizing and disrupting worker-to-worker “captive audience meetings,” where advisors discuss the alleged ills of the unions. According to Logan, workers used to be much more afraid to stand up to anti-union advisers, and one reason workers are less afraid is because the low unemployment rate makes it easier for workers to find another job when they are be fired for supporting a union.
“They survived the pandemic and they’re not that scared anymore,” Logan said. “The pandemic has been such a frightening experience that workers have recalibrated their sense of risk in relation to what they are willing to do in their lives. They are more willing to join a union campaign. They feel they have repeatedly been disrespected while their employers are making billions of dollars.”
Logan was impressed that workers interrupted several of Amazon’s captive audience meetings. “The fact that they had the courage to do it shows that something has fundamentally changed,” he said. “The captive audience meeting mechanism is much less successful when someone stands up and questions what they are saying. It’s all crumbling away.”
Angelika Maldonado, a 27-year-old packer at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, was one of the workers who disrupted a captive spectator gathering. She and other workers questioned Amazon’s claim that workers’ wages could be cut if they unionize. She also tried to refute one of Amazon’s main arguments. “They put out all this propaganda that we were a third party,” Maldonado said. “Once we gained the workers’ trust, they would see that we were not a third-party union.” Rather, she explained, we are Amazon workers like her who formed a union.
Something Staten Island union officials have outed anti-union advisers who walked through the warehouse urging workers to vote against unionization. The workers tried to get their names, and after doing so, they tweeted the consultant’s name and photo, telling the workers not to speak to them. They further undermined the consultants’ effectiveness by emphasizing that some of them were making $3,200 a day.
Maldonado said, “We did some math and showed that instead of paying these union fighters all that money, Amazon could have given everyone in the building a raise.”
Wilma Liebman, chair of the National Labor Relations Board during President Obama’s first term, said anti-union advisers have become less effective because they have not kept pace with the changing workforce. “It’s hard to imagine how any of these union fighters can be successful. Almost all are old white guys,” she said. “They’re trying to demonstrate control with a certain intimidation factor. Whether these workers are white, African American, or something else, it’s still a culture clash. It’s hard to imagine that the message from these advisors would resonate well.”
Liebman added, “One way the counselors seem to be as effective as ever is by persuading employers to buy their services.” Some anti-union attorneys charge upwards of $1,200 an hour.
A veteran labor lawyer on the management side in Washington, who insisted on anonymity, said the recent string of union successes doesn’t mean anti-union lawyers and advisers have become any less effective. “More was made of it than it should be,” he said. “I think it’s very situational.” He noted that trade union movements have been at a loss lately Hershey’s Virginia factory and at Hello Fresh food packaging equipment. (In these places, workers didn’t challenge the anti-union consultants nearly as much as they did at Amazon or Starbucks.)
The lawyer acknowledged that young workers “question authority” more than their parents’ generation. “I think workers are more skeptical of what people are saying. They may be more willing to take on challenges than they have been in the past.”
A second lawyer, a partner at one of the country’s leading anti-union law firms, who also insisted on anonymity, said workers’ shrewd use of social media had undermined efforts to avoid unions. “The internet and social media have made employees a lot smarter,” he said. “They can communicate better with each other and see different sources of information. I think social media has changed the playing field – and maybe evened it out.”
Rebecca Givan, Professor of Ergonomics at Rutgers, said: “Young workers are more agitated to speak up and counter them, for example by speaking in a meeting with a captive audience and challenging the perceived facts in a presentation place. These are really new things.”
Young workers are too young to remember Ronald Reagan’s busting of the air traffic controllers’ union. Many have been encouraged by Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Many young workers feel frustrated and pressured by high student debt and rising rents.
According to Givan, social media has helped inoculate workers against anti-union advisors: “When workers are able to quickly share anti-union talking points and see them using the same arguments in different companies and workplaces, it all becomes the same out of nowhere Playbook, it shows how tired their tactics and rhetoric are.”
Richard Bensinger, a Workers United organizer who helped lead Starbucks’ union campaign, said new technology helped overcome union avoidance advisers. “I don’t think we could have done this without Zoom and virtual meetings and partner talks with partners,” he said. (Partner is the term Starbucks uses to describe its workers.) So far, workers at 18 of the 19 Starbucks where votes have been counted have voted to organize, and workers at more than 200 Starbucks have votes for unionization organization requested.
“As for the vaccine, we’re asking Samantha at the New York Roastery, who just voted to unionize, to speak to the people at the Starbucks in Austin, Texas and tell them what to expect from the anti-union people.” said Bensinger.
Some Amazon and Starbucks workers have used TikTok to spread their pro-union message, and WhatsApp and Telegram to spread the word and answer workers’ questions.
Bensinger said the anti-union advisers and lawyers are still very effective but often fall short. He noted that at a Starbucks in Buffalo, 100% of workers signed pro-union cards, but the union there won only 15-9. He said the solidarity and activism of young workers was the key to defeating anti-union lawyers and advisers.
“Young workers will only take so much,” he said. “A worker in Montana told me, ‘I’m only making $11 an hour and I’m going to make Howard Schultz rich.’ Unions are their great hope today.”