A senior labor official appointed by President Joe Biden has taken aim at mandatory union-busting meetings at work, saying she would call for them to be banned.
Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, released a memo on Thursday explaining why she thinks such meetings are illegal. She said she would pursue a case before the entire NLRB in hopes of getting them banned.
These meetings typically involve an outside manager or consultant presenting union-busting talking points to workers who are considering joining a union. Unions call them “captive audience” meetings because attendance is often required or assumed. Meetings have plagued labor groups for decades, as they typically lack a similar, guaranteed platform in the workplace to advocate for unionization.
Abruzzo’s decision to ban them is sure to dismay employer groups, who are likely to fight such a ban in court. The Advocate General signaled as soon as she took office last year that she would try to ban such meetings on the grounds that they are inherently coercive, as part of a broader program to strengthen the right labor in favor of workers rather than employers.
“They are the primary weapon employers use to spread misinformation, intimidate workers and interfere with their choice of whether or not they want union representation.”
– Stuart Appelbaum, President, RWDSU
In her memo, Abruzzo said she would ask the board to ban them in two situations: when workers are “required to meet on paid time” or when they are “cornered by management in the exercise of their duties” to hear anti-union speeches. . This last situation seems to include not only group meetings, but also individual interviews between managers and workers.
“In either case, employees are a captive audience deprived of their legal right to abstain, and are instead forced to listen under threat of disciplinary action, dismissal or other retaliation – a threat that employees will perceive. reasonably even if not stated explicitly,” Abruzzo wrote.
To accomplish such a change in precedent, an attorney-general would find a good case and then try to take it to the five-member Labor Council, which serves as the high court for labor law. The board currently has a 3-2 Democratic majority, due to Senate confirmed nominations made by Biden.
A staple of management campaigns for years, meetings with a captive audience have recently gained national attention, thanks to high-profile labor campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks.
The tech giant has rolled out meetings amidst campaigns at both its Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8 and its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse known as BHM1. The Amazon Labor Union recently won a landmark election in the former, while an election in the latter involving the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union remains too close to call.
Both unions have filed so-called “unfair labor practice” charges against Amazon with the labor board, arguing that the meetings should be declared illegal.
RWDSU welcomed Abruzzo’s memo on the meetings in a statement on Thursday.
“They are the primary weapon used by employers to spread misinformation, intimidate workers and interfere with their choice of whether or not they want union representation,” said union president Stuart Appelbaum. “Whether workers want a union should be the choice of workers – not employers – without intimidation or interference.”
The labor commission ruled meetings with a captive audience to be legal, but Abruzzo argued the reading was incorrect. She called it a “license to compel” which amounts to “an anomaly of labor law”. She said the board’s tolerance of meetings is “at odds with fundamental principles of labor law, our statutory language, and our Congressional mandate” to protect workers’ rights.
In most cases, unions do not have access to a workplace to speak with workers, usually making their case outside of a facility or through home visits. Unions try to prepare workers for meetings with a captive audience through a process known as “inoculation,” in which they try to debunk management’s claims in advance.
Amazon spent $4.3 million on union busting consultants last year alone. Company consultants held group meetings as well as one-on-one conversations with workers in an effort to get them to vote against unions in New York and Alabama. Consultants earned a typical salary of around $3,200 a day each. Amazon did not comment on the expenses.
An Amazon employee in Staten Island told HuffPost earlier this week how he and his colleagues tried to turn group meetings into organizing opportunities, rather than the liability they usually are. The union ultimately won the election 2,654 to 2,131.
“Once we had a host in a meeting, the goal was to shut them down completely,” said Connor Spence. “We interrupted them whenever they made inaccurate statements and asked them so many questions that they had no choice but to end the meeting. Over time, even softer people who were pro-union began to speak out.