By Ryan Coffel
Picture it: You’ve rallied your coworkers. You’ve got enough of your colleagues to sign Authorization Cards. You’ve declared your intent to unionize to the bosses.
It seems like every day brings news of a new Starbucks, retail, Amazon warehouse, and even museum workers standing together to organize unions in their workplaces. Yet, even with what seems to be nonstop coverage, and historic public approval, some of these campaigns fail. Why is this? Dear reader, let’s talk about a playbook that hasn’t changed in decades – The Union Busting Playbook.
For the last two years, I have worked with courageous and passionate coworkers to successfully organize Colectivo Coffee, a regional, Midwestern coffee shop based in Milwaukee, WI. In August of 2021, we became the largest cafe union in the country. Yet, as of publication, we are STILL waiting for the bosses to stop stalling and bargain in good faith.
It hasn’t been easy.
The company continues to fight us tooth and nail to this day, and show no signs of quitting. Luckily, neither do we. The union busting tactics they use aren’t new, but if you’re not prepared, they are completely draining and jarring. Don’t despair! Knowing what’s going to happen makes the entire process easier and more manageable.
Firstly, the owners are probably calling an emergency meeting with leadership to find out why this happened. Secondly, they’re most likely getting in touch with a third party of their own – a Union Avoidance Firm. If you have endless money like Amazon and Starbucks, you hire Morgan Lewis and Littler Mendelson, respectively. If you’re a smaller company, you may see the same Union Avoidance Firm that I did – the Labor Relations Institute (LRI). These firms all have the same thing in common – they want to bleed the employers dry and work to bust your union. Let’s dive into the tactics.
The above images come from REI and Colectivo Coffee. Notice anything about those two pictures? They both pretty much say the same thing! Our first discovery together is that no matter what kind of workplace you are organizing, the playbook is exactly the same!
The first change you will see as a worker is that the owners will apologize for “mistakes” in the past. They will ask for forgiveness. They will tell you it is “easier to work together” to fix these problems than bringing in a pesky, third party. The owners may even say they’re, “more approachable than ever,” and “their door is always open.”
Next, you’ll start getting the targeted emails and posters. The LRI has multiple, expensive, packages that will look JUST like normal corporate communication. Only these will be written by the union avoidance firm.
You will start to have regular mandatory meetings with these “consultants.” These meetings will be advertised as “safe spaces” for you to “learn about the intricacies” of the Labor Relations Act. Everything this person will tell you will be inflated and “worst case scenario.”
Do not despair!
Keep your ears trained for words like “could” or “may.” Examples include: “with a union, your wages COULD go down” and “flexible scheduling MAY be replaced with stricter union policies.” So how can you combat this? Easy – ask questions! Be vocal in these meetings. These are easy to combat by just stating the obvious fact: Why would you put ANYTHING in your contract that would be worse for you?! Be aware, though, this will put you on corporate’s radar. They will know where you stand, which will make your work-life harder than it already is, but organizing a union IS hard – having no control over your work-life is even harder! Do not despair! Your coworkers will gain strength and feel solidarity as they see you standing up for yourself and your coworkers. As long as you don’t let the bosses get to you, others will feel empowered and will make your life easier! Remember – there is strength in numbers.
The next thing you might notice is the bombardment of anti-union propaganda that will pop up in your workplace. They will all look like what normal corporate communication looks like to trick you. Corporate will also say that this is “just factual, neutral information” for every coworker. Sure, this looks factual and neutral .
As you get closer and closer to your election day, all of this will ramp up to eleven. Captive Audience Meetings will happen more frequently. Targeting emails and posters will pop up almost out of nowhere, and your average work day will become more and more hostile as they try to push you out. You’ll start to see your bosses and their bosses at your workplace picking apart every little thing you do. For example, as an organizer, you will have to ensure that you are not even one second late, or they will use that against you saying that “the attendance policy is black and white.”
Companies will try everything to prevent voting from happening. They will cut and reduce hours. They will gaslight you and make you think that you’re the one at fault. They’ll blame the union for “sowing division” and “upsetting the culture.” Even though it’s the bosses doing this.
When everyone stands up to management in solidarity, they have no answer.
This is where you become the leader the company wanted, only this time, you’re doing it for the Union. This is when you, the organizer, do everything to show their hypocrisy. The company claims there’s “no money for wage increases?” Ask them where the money for the Labor Avoidance Firm comes from. When everyone stands up to management in solidarity, they have no answer. This is how you win !
Alright, you defeated the Union Busters, you’ve arrived at election day. You’ve won! It’s over right?! Buddy, I wish! Their next move now is to delay certifying the election as long as they can. They’re betting that they can make working conditions terrible so you’ll quit. Since they’re spending so much money on Union Avoidance Firms, there’ll be less money for labor, so less people on the floor for service. They’ll bet they can reduce your hours, so that you’ll have no other option but to quit, or pick up a second job. Then, they’ll bet you get frustrated with the process, so you’ll just move on.
This is where you have to be even stronger.
We saw this and continue to see it with Colectivo. Don’t fret, you can use this time to rally the union base. This is an excellent time to get contract surveys out to your coworkers, so, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules in your favor, you can immediately get to the bargaining table, and start negotiating your contract!
The last and most nefarious tactic employers will use is targeting and terminating union supporters. Companies will twist and turn their handbook to push you out. The best way to combat this is to become the “best employee they’ve ever seen.” I know that is easier said than done, but nothing is more fulfilling than seeing your employer try and fail to push you out. Not only does that make you a stronger leader, it shows the rest of your coworkers the power of working in a union. Most importantly, if this DOES happen, your Union will have your back.
When we all stand in solidarity, we cannot be beat
Until something changes, knowing what’s in store for you is the best way to combat the owners and their union avoidance firm. The good news is: this new labor movement is here, and it is not going away anytime soon. Companies are getting sloppy. What can we do? Until it becomes easier for the working class to organize, it’s up to us to continue to share every union busting tactic we come across. When we all stand in solidarity, we cannot be beat.