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Wave of union victories suggests union-busting consultants may have lost their sway

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The nation’s anti-union consultants and lawyers – who have made millions of dollars fighting against union drives – have just been through some of their worst weeks ever as unions racked up wins at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, the New York Times, MIT and other places.

These consultants and lawyers – often called “union busters” – have done so poorly that John Logan, a professor who has studied “union avoidance” efforts for two decades, says their anti-union kryptonite seems to have suddenly lost much of its power. “For decades, the consultants have seemed almost invincible. Many firms have boasted victory rates of over 95%,” said Logan, a professor at San Francisco State. But in Staten Island, “the Amazon Labor Union turned the tables on the company’s anti-union consultants” and showed they may have been “more of a liability than an asset”.

Logan said anti-union consultants are often no longer as effective because workers and their attitudes have changed: workers, especially younger workers, are braver about speaking out, they’re using social media to outmaneuver the consultants, and they’re embracing highly effective strategies, like worker-to-worker organizing and interrupting so-called captive audience meetings, where consultants discuss the supposed evils of unions. Logan said workers often used to be far more scared to stand up to anti-union consultants, and one reason workers are less frightened is that the low jobless rate makes it easier for workers to find another job if they get fired for supporting a union.

“They survived the pandemic, and they’re no longer so fearful,” Logan said. “The pandemic was such a frightening experience that workers have recalibrated their sense of risk about what they’re prepared to do in their lives. They’re more prepared to join a union campaign. They feel they’ve repeatedly been disrespected while their employers were 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 that helps show that something has fundamentally changed,” he said. “The mechanism of the captive audience meeting is much less successful if someone gets up and challenges what they’re saying. It all crumbles away.”

Angelika Maldonado, a 27-year-old packer at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, was one of the workers who interrupted a captive audience meeting. She and other workers challenged Amazon’s assertion that workers might see their wages cut if they unionize. She also sought to rebut one of Amazon’s main arguments. “They put out all this propaganda that we were a third party,” Maldonado said. “Once we gained the trust of workers, they would see we are not a third-party union.” Rather, she explained, we are Amazon workers like them who created a union.

Some Staten Island worker-organizers outed the anti-union consultants who walked the warehouse floor, urging workers to vote against unionizing. Workers sought to learn their names, and once they did, they tweeted out the consultant’s name and photo and urged workers not to talk to them. They further undermined the consultants’ effectiveness by highlighting that some of them earned $3,200 a day.

Maldonado said: “We did some calculations and showed that instead of paying these union busters all this 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 consultants have grown less effective because they haven’t kept up with the changing workforce. “It’s hard to imagine how any of these union busters succeed. Almost all are old white guys,” she said. “They seek to demonstrate control with some 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 of these consultants has much resonance.”

Liebman added: “One way the consultants seem to be as effective as ever is in convincing employers to buy their services.” Some anti-union lawyers charge more than $1,200 an hour.

A longtime management-side labor lawyer in Washington, who insisted on anonymity, said the recent string of union victories doesn’t mean that anti-union lawyers and consultants have become less effective. “More has been made of this than it should be,” he said. “I think it’s very situational.” He noted that unionization drives lost recently at a Hershey’s factory in Virginia and at HelloFresh food-packing facilities. (At those places, the workers didn’t challenge the anti-union consultants nearly as much as they did at Amazon or Starbucks.)

The lawyer acknowledged that young workers are “challenging authority” more than their parents’ generation. “I think workers are more skeptical of what people say. They’re more willing to challenge, perhaps, than they were in the past.”

A second lawyer, a partner at one of the nation’s leading anti-union law firms, also insisting on anonymity, said that workers’ smart use of social media has undercut union avoidance efforts. “The internet and social media have made employees much more savvy,” he said. “They’ve able to communicate better with each other and see different sources of information. I think social media has changed – and maybe leveled – the playing field.”

Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers, said: “Young workers are more excited to speak up and counteract them, by, for instance, talking up in a captive audience meeting, challenging the supposed facts in a presentation. These are really new things.”

Young workers are too young to remember Ronald Reagan’s busting the air-traffic controllers union. Many have been emboldened by Bernie Sanders and by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Many young workers feel angry and squeezed by large student debt loads and soaring rents.

Givan said social media has helped inoculate workers against anti-union consultants: “When workers are rapidly able to share anti-union talking points and see that they use the same arguments at different companies and workplaces, that it’s all cookie cutter, all from the same playbook, it shows how tired their tactics and rhetoric are.”

Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Workers United who helped lead the Starbucks’ unionization campaign, said new technologies have helped overcome the union-avoidance consultants. “I don’t think we could have done this without Zoom and virtual meetings and partners talking to partners,” he said. (Partners is the term Starbucks uses to describe its workers.) Thus far, workers have voted in favor of unionizing at 18 of the 19 Starbucks where votes have been counted, and workers at more than 200 Starbucks have petitioned for unionization elections.

“As far as inoculation, we get Samantha from the New York Roastery, which just voted to unionize, to speak to people at the Starbucks in Austin, Texas, telling them what to expect from the anti-union folks,” Bensinger said.

Some Amazon and Starbucks workers have used TikTok to get out their pro-union message and WhatsApp and Telegram to spread the word and answer workers’ questions.

Bensinger said the anti-union consultants and lawyers are still plenty effective, but often fall short. He noted that at one Buffalo Starbucks, 100% of the workers signed pro-union cards, but the union won there just 15 to 9. He said the solidarity and activism of the young workers was key to defeating the anti-union lawyers and consultants.

“Young workers will only take so much,” he said. “A worker in Montana told me, ‘I’m making just $11 an hour and making Howard Schultz rich.’ Unions today are their big hope.”

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