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Could the NLRA become a Pro-Union Manifesto? 5/12/2016
Exploring Captive-Audience Meetings from a Union Organizer's Perspective
By: Ricardo Torres

This is a companion piece to our recent InsideEdge newsletter of the same title. That piece examines a recent pro-union, "equal opportunity" gag rule petition that 106 professor and academics submitted to the NLRB that would force employers to pay for the privilege of letting the union communicate with their employees.

As a former Union Official and former National Organizing Director with experience in over thousand union-side elections, I can tell you how effective the so-called "captive-audience meetings" are in turning votes and establishing trust in the company's representative, if done correctly. In fact, I, along with former AFL/CIO Organizing Director, Richard Bensinger, put together a nationwide strategy to counter the effectiveness of management meetings. We developed plans on how to disrupt the meetings to counter their momentum and make the union supporters even more angry with their management team. It was a prerequisite to have the employees agree to follow our organizers' directives to disrupt these meetings before we would agree to take a unit to an election vote.

Of course, picking the right workers in the unit was paramount to winning a campaign, but almost equally as important was picking the right management team to attack. When workers reached out to us, we had an interview process to determine if they were motivated enough and the company's management team and abuses were easy enough to exploit.

Over the years, workers have taken many steps to attack the captive meetings. We had our own special ways of taking the floor from the company:

  • Have employees shouting over the speaker
  • Bringing popcorn to watch "anti-union" movies (and starting popcorn fights)
  • Arming the workers with questions and comments that would force management to either walk away or, better yet, commit an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP)
  • Along with many others...

In Wichita, Kansas, at a Grade Steel plant, there was a campaign where workers took extreme measures to counter the employer's efforts to hold their "anti-union" meetings. This was a very angry group of workers. Some of the major issues surrounding the organizing efforts involved a lack of accommodations being made to address language barriers for a growing Asian and Mexican workforce which created safety issues. The company also implemented an "English-only" policy for their point system, which resulted in several high tenured workers being disciplined and fired; additional layoffs; and changes in the production incentives which affected and angered their senior employees.

First of all, my organizers had secured 69% support from the unit's members. All we had to do was to hold on to as many of them as we could, but the company was working hard to come off as good guys. The company hired consultants to persuade the workers that the union was not the best choice for them.

Over the first two weeks, the company was starting to make a dent in the enthusiasm of some of the workers, so I went Kansas to see if we could stop the company's advance. We had 40% of the workers representing all three shifts on our Internal Organizing Committee (IOC), so we were still in good shape, but we knew that the numbers could change fast. We set up a meeting with the IOC to put an action plan in place.

We still had approximately a month before the election was to take place, so we had time to change the management's narrative. The committee set in place an aggressive plan to derail the meetings, while at the same time we would start to poison the atmosphere by filing ULP charges against management's messaging both inside and outside the meetings.

We had a list of complaints against the company from a large group of employees, so we demanded that the next meeting be redirected towards discussing only these issues. All meetings, across all three shifts, were taken over that week. Our goal was to frustrate the person giving the meeting and get him to yell at the employees, which we felt was threatening, and we filed ULP charges against the company for creating a fearful atmosphere. The next day, the company overreacted to the meeting and wrote-up 13 workers for disrupting the meetings and we promptly filed ULP charges against the company for retaliation against union activity.

A few days later, several workers staged safety violations after we arranged for our AFL/CIO state affiliates to have an OSHA inspector make an unannounced visit to the plant. (The AFL/CIO affiliates maintain open relations with OSHA boards in all 50 states.) The company was cited for 15 safety violations on that visit.

The United Steel Workers (USW) only had a small local in Wichita, so my organizers arranged for a retired safety officer from the Boeing plant to have an open meeting with the employees to discuss needed changes and how to force management's hand. Before the next round of meetings began, the company was presented with a petition to appoint more "safety men" and to change many of the safety procedures. This was not presented as just a union-supporter concern, as we arranged for the safety concerns to come to light so that even non-union-supporters would join in on the effort to "improve safety". As a result, the petition was signed by 88% of all workers.

The workers were very angry going into the next meeting with management. Over 70% of the workers took off their overalls to reveal unions shirts during each of the shift meetings. Once again, this was a requirement for us to continue the campaign to the vote. This meeting turned into a fevered discussion of safety concerns and the unfairness of the write-ups over the workers taking over the last round of meetings. The company speakers were pelted with a countless number of questions, so many that the one of speakers walked out and the plant manager came in to try to settle things down. The rest of the meetings that day were cancelled and the plant manager held a large mandatory meeting two days later to address the safety issues.

At the mass meeting, the plant manager was given another petition demanding a qualified safety officer from the union be allowed to attend and participate in the discussion and represent the workers in facilitating the improvements. We even had the retired Boeing safety officer outside the plant so the workers knew that he was happy to participate. The plant manager refused to allow this and the meeting deteriorated into the plant manager yelling at the workers.

Management tried to bypass the group meetings and isolate the workers into one-on-one meetings for the last week, but our IOC did a great job of teaching the work force what to expect from the company and what questions to ask. The questions were tainted in such a way that they would trap management and their reps into violating the NLRA and we filed more ULP's for each violation.

As the "25th" hour meetings with management were being set up, we learned that management was flying in a high-ranking corporation officer to save the day! Their idea was for him to come in on his white horse and talk some common sense into the workers. His high-level position would impress the employees and demonstrate how important the unit is to the company and how conditions would improve without having to actually make any promises.

We had the employees sneak in a special treat for the corporate officer. Skunk spray and deer urine can be purchased at many sporting goods stores and a mixture of the two result in a natural tear-gas-like spray. A few hours before the "25th" hour meetings, some maintenance workers flooded the vents and sprayed the carpets, curtains, and any other fabrics with this cocktail. A supervisor panicked, shut down the area, and called the fire department. Management had to hastily arrange for a hotel conference room to hold the meetings that day, as it was the last day that management could talk to the workers before the election. The corporate executive was visibly annoyed, as were the supervisors, who were openly talking about someone sabotaging the offices and meeting rooms.

These great length were taken to disrupt the company's narrative, throw them off their game, and cause them to make mistakes. This was all done because management's captive-audience meetings were being effective. At that time, I was on the union side, so we took creative measures to counter the meetings.

Since I began working with management, I can say that these meetings can make or break any chances of winning a campaign. Allowing the union access will only lead to more anarchy like I just described because the workers will view the union rep as their armor and will act in a more brazen manner. These meetings have to rebuild faith in a group of employees who have turned their backs on and lost all trust in supervision. With the union prominently positioned alongside management, it would be extremely easy for the union to use their campaigns of anger fueled psychological warfare to further entice employees to vote for the union.

Conclusion

There have been other attempts to eliminate captive-audience meetings. For more than 10 years, the labor movement has been attempting to pass state-level bills to "prohibit employers from requiring employees to attend meetings primarily about...political matters...or a labor organization" (i.e. to ban captive meetings). Labor and their supporters know that these meetings are an effective tool for management, and they are determined to eliminate employers' most important paragraph from the NLRA, which gives employers the right to educate employees with facts, opinions and experience because of the NLRA's Freedom of Speech clause [Section 8 (c)]. Eliminating this right or making it impossible for businesses to implement because they would have to double the amount of time that they pay workers to sit in meetings (to also allow the union to hold captive-audience meetings) would essentially gag managements' ability to communicate with their own employees during a campaign.

As you can see from the language in the current NLRA, workers are already protected from the so-called abuse of threats and empty promises made by employers that the NLRB could view as a bribe. In essence, this paragraph is the definition of the "laboratory conditions" that representation elections are supposed to be held in. It is fair and the petition proposed by a group of socialist professors is a clear and present danger to employers' First and Fifth Amendment rights. So far, the Board has not opened up this proposed rule for comments, but we will notify you when it does. Also, if you have not already, please read this article's companion InsideEdge entry in which we examine this deeply flawed petition.

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