Union Organizing 2.0: Targeting “Progressive” Employers

11 April 2022 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Author(s): Donald W. Schroeder

While the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine have justifiably taken center stage over the past few months, union organizing efforts at companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, to name a few, have received substantial media coverage. (See today’s companion article). Upon closer inspection, it appears unions have shifted their focus away from traditional industries such as manufacturing and construction, opting instead to concentrate their efforts on a type of business — namely, one that espouses progressive values, ideas, and policies. The union’s mantra appears to be quite simple — if you are a progressive company, you should champion workers’ rights and support their desire to unionize. Period. Full stop. While being “progressive” does not necessarily include sympathy for unions as one of its core tenets, this new-found labor strategy of blurring the line between these two sentiments has surfaced in organizing campaigns at companies such as Starbucks, No Evil Foods, REI, “The New York Times,” Colectivo Coffee, and Beneficial State Bank.

How Do Unions Do It?

As an initial matter, unions have embraced the world of social media, which has allowed them to reach a wider audience, including the potential support of numerous celebrities and politicians, with fewer resources. In addition, unions have seized upon the pandemic’s negative impact upon employees, including not only concerns over COVID-19 safety protocols (or lack thereof), but also growing frustration over changing furlough, retention, and scheduling policies. Capitalizing on their social media savvy, unions have flooded multiple social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to deliver their message. For example, union organizers at Starbucks and REI have used hashtag campaigns like #UnionYES. Other unions have used less mainstream platforms, such as Signal, to communicate with employees. To be sure, social media has allowed unions to control the conversation around union organizing efforts, especially where companies may lack a strong social media presence or limit comments or responses on their websites. When Colectivo Coffee, a large progressive-minded coffee and café chain, received a union’s petition for election, it pursued an anti-union campaign, even engaging an outside consultant who specializes in union avoidance. While the initial vote resulted in a tie, the NLRB counted the challenged ballots, resulting in a union win, 106-99. Against the backdrop of the union’s social media efforts, which called into question whether the company was hypocritical by opposing its efforts to improve wages, hours, and working conditions, Colectivo did not challenge the results. Likewise, “The New York Times” has come under fire for its vocal opposition to unionizing efforts by tech workers to join the NewsGuild of New York. After declining to voluntarily recognize the union, “The New York Times” was slammed for the juxtaposition between its union-avoidance tactics (including captive audience meetings with workers) and its well-documented progressive mission and reporting (including the publication of editorials advocating for the voluntary recognition of unions without the need for a secret ballot election). On March 3, 2022, the tech workers scored a huge victory with a vote of 404-88 in their favor, making it the largest tech union in the United States. 

The Employers’ Response

Realizing that it presents a delicate balancing act, some employers have pushed back on the underlying premise that progressive values are necessarily union-friendly. Employers have pointed to a variety of reasons why unions are not necessary, even in a progressive work setting:

  1. By bringing a third party into the fray, the company will be unable to maintain a direct line of communication with its employees.
  2. If forced to focus its resources on collective bargaining negotiations and administration of a union contract, such efforts will detract from the company’s progressive mission.
  3. With a union, there will be additional costs and bureaucracy. While these efforts have resulted in some success, the NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo’s recent announcement that she will seek to curtail “captive audience” meetings will likely add another layer of complexity for progressive companies that are facing the threat of unions.  
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