Thousands of workers across the country have been busy gathering signatures from their co-workers in the past year. Candy makers at a Hershey’s factory in Virginia. Cooks at a Chipotle restaurant in Michigan. Six employees at a Dollar General store in Connecticut.
Their goal: form a labor union to force their bosses to negotiate better pay and benefits after years of brutal working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them are low-paid service employees trying to establish the first unions at multibillion-dollar companies.
The recent spike in labor organizing is unusual, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data published by the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces collective bargaining laws and oversees union elections.
Workers have filed more than 2,000 requests to hold elections to form labor unions since the start of the fiscal year, which began in October. That’s a jump of more than 62% from fiscal year 2021 — the highest increase in at least a decade. These numbers don’t include unions created without formal elections, often because employers recognize them voluntarily.
The surge in requests for official elections has overwhelmed the NLRB. The agency said it’s understaffed and “handling unsustainable caseloads.”
It has also alarmed corporate executives, who are paying thousands of dollars a day to break up organizing efforts. Amazon, Dollar General, Hershey’s, Pfizer, Walgreens and Chipotle are just a few major companies that have done so since the start of the pandemic, according to Public Integrity’s review of disclosures filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
One of their go-to firms is the Labor Relations Institute, which prides itself in guiding companies to become “union free” and educating employees “about the disadvantages of unions.”
In December and January, Dollar General paid the firm $83,488 for its services in stopping six workers at a store in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, from forming a union, according to the company’s disclosures.
Employees at the store said they wanted job security and to ensure they wouldn’t get fired without good reason.
One of them contacted Jennifer Petronella, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 371. Petronella said LRI, as the firm is known, put on the most aggressive anti-union campaign she’s ever witnessed. Its strategy, she said, involved flying several Dollar General executives to Connecticut to shadow employees in the weeks leading up to the October vote. She wasn’t surprised to find out how much Dollar General spent to block the union.
“What’s sad is that they’d rather pay consultants thousands and thousands of dollars rather than give that to their employees,” Petronella added.
One of the employees who pushed for the election, Shellie Parsons, said the consultants and executives badmouthed unions and told employees they were being tricked.
“They followed us. It’s like you’re walking on eggshells around the store. They’re right there,” Parsons described in an interview with a More Perfect Union roughly a week before the vote. “They’re listening. You can’t talk. You can’t work. You can’t do nothing. It’s so uncomfortable.”
Days before the election, the company fired a union organizer for allegedly using profanity in front of customers, Petronella said — a move she said was illegal retaliation for his union organizing. UFCW Local 371 is still challenging his firing before the labor board. In the end, the company’s strategy may have worked. Three of the six employees voted against forming a union, just enough to block it for now.
Dollar General and the Labor Relations Institute did not respond to a request for comment from Public Integrity.
The most common reason companies say they oppose labor unions is because they want to have a direct relationship with their employees. It also costs them more money. Research shows that the growth of union jobs correlates to higher wages for the lowest-paid workers. Studies also show that expanding union membership likely decreases income inequality.
In 2021, the typical paycheck for a full-time union employee was $194 higher each week than that of a full-time nonunion employee, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While public support for labor unions has skyrocketed in recent years, the share of workers who belong to one has declined for decades. Only about 1 in 10 workers in the United States are union members.
Corporate executives don’t seem to want that number to rise. Public Integrity reviewed public records to see how much U.S. corporations paid union-avoidance firms in recent years. Here is a sample of what we found:
One of the biggest spenders in recent years is Amazon. In 2021, the company paid more than $4.2 million to four anti-union labor firms, according to disclosures filed with the Department of Labor. The filings described the payments as a “response to large scale union organizing efforts.”
Most of that money targeted organizing efforts at two Amazon warehouses: one in Bessemer, Alabama, and another at the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York.
One firm, Lev Labor, charged $400 per hour for each consultant to meet with workers at the Staten Island warehouse, conduct “walkthroughs” and run employee focus groups. They also met with managers to roleplay conversations about the union.
That strategy may not have worked. In April, a majority of employees there voted in favor of joining the Amazon Labor Union — the first federally recognized union victory at the company’s U.S. facilities. Amazon is challenging the election results before the NLRB.
The union’s win in April follows heated elections at a separate Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers in favor of unionizing narrowly lost an election there in 2021. The results of a revote in March, which was ordered by the labor board, is still too close to call.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment from Public Integrity. Neither did Lev Labor.
Amazon has not yet reported its union-related spending in 2022.
The Hershey’s Company
During the winter, The Hershey’s Company hired six union-avoidance firms to block organizing efforts at its chocolate factory in Stuarts Draft, Virginia.
Employees in favor of unionizing there cited overtime pay cuts, fewer breaks and wage gaps as the main reasons for organizing with the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union. More than 1,000 people work at the company’s second-largest factory, which produces iconic candies such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Almond Joy candy bars. Only two of Hershey’s seven factories are unionized.
“We are delighted and honored for the opportunity to educate your employees about the myths and realities of union representation,” wrote Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute, in a January letter to a company executive. The letter was recently submitted by the labor firm to the Department of Labor.
One month later, in March, a majority of workers at the plant voted against unionizing. It’s unclear how much money Hershey’s paid the six labor firms to help make that happen. The company hasn’t submitted its spending report for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Hershey’s did not respond to a request for comment from Public Integrity. Neither did Phillip Wilson of the Labor Relations Institute.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
Chipotle hired three different firms to intervene in union organizing efforts at some of its restaurants over the summer. At least one of the firms, P.A.S. Labor, was paid to talk to workers at a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, according to its disclosures.
The firm’s anti-union campaign did not pay off. In August, most employees at the restaurant voted in favor of joining Teamsters Local 243 to represent 21 employees — the chain’s first location to unionize.
Employees said they want higher wages and better schedules.
A month earlier, Chipotle permanently closed a restaurant in Augusta, Maine. Workers there had just filed a request for a union election. The company said it was unable to “adequately staff” that location, though union organizers claimed the chain was trying to silence workers.
Chipotle did not respond to a request for comment from Public Integrity. Neither did the president of P.A.S. Labor.
It’s unclear how much Chipotle paid the three union-avoidance firms it hired over the summer, as it hasn’t submitted its spending report for the current fiscal year.
Last year, the luxury goods retailer paid $47,250 to the Labor Relations Institute to “train members of management on how to comply with the National Labor Relations Act and/or to educate employees regarding their [collective bargaining] rights.”
The company’s disclosures did not give details about where employees were organizing, but one consultant mentioned that his work involved the “pre-petition” phase, meaning that employees had not yet requested an official election. According to NLRB records, they still haven’t.
Warehouse employees for Williams-Sonoma have tried to unionize at least twice before in 2016, but the company challenged both election requests. One was dismissed by the board and employees withdrew the other.
Williams-Sonoma did not respond to questions from Public Integrity.
(Editor’s note: The author of this article is a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, a member union of the AFL-CIO.)