GEICO insurance sales rep Lila Balali first started thinking about a union early in the pandemic. “I didn’t really know what a union was,” she says, “just that it was something for the employee.”
She and her co-workers had been abruptly sent to work from home, where she set up a cramped workspace. “We were taking calls on our cell phones, 40 hours a week, our phone to our ear,” she recalls. “You couldn’t get reimbursed or provided a headset.
“A billion-dollar company — a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, a Warren Buffet company — was having us go on our cell phones. They passed the cost of business on to us. They didn’t want to spend $1,000 on each associate, and we couldn’t stop them.”
This year, she and her co-workers in Buffalo launched GEICO United, an effort to form an independent union at the insurance giant. GEICO has 2,600 employees in Buffalo, making it one of the area’s largest employers. The union would be the first at the company, although more than 50,000 workers at other Berkshire Hathaway companies are unionized, including rail workers at BNSF.
“The System Is Flawed”
The pandemic did more than send GEICO workers home. It also severely hit GEICO’s bottom line; the company had two of its worst quarters ever in late 2021 and early 2022, a product of the surging values of used cars and the increased cost of repairs. This year, citing these factors GEICO stopped selling insurance over the phone in 18 states and closed 38 offices in California.
For workers like Balali, who has worked at GEICO since 2014, lower sales volume has meant no more bonuses, which are based on sales performance. In fact, the company has reassigned about 30 percent of the sales department nationally to other functions. GEICO has also laid off hundreds of workers in other departments.
The pay and treatment at GEICO can be uneven. Department heads are given a pot of money to distribute raises to the workers they supervise, and women and people of color tend to get left behind.
Sometimes there is outright racism. One supervisor Balali had “would walk around and say ‘What’s up, ISIS?’ because I’m Middle Eastern.”
Inspiration Close to Home
At first, thinking about a union was the extent of it. Then the Amazon Labor Union won in Staten Island, and Balali heard about Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker who took on the e-commerce giant and won.
“I read everything I could find online about [Smalls],” says Balali “He was terminated. Just a regular person, an average person. At such a large facility… Chris Smalls showed you can organize a location of 8,000 employees without being an established union.”
Balali had another important source of inspiration. Working from home in Buffalo, she would head down her street, Elmwood Avenue, to Starbucks. There she met a barista named Jaz Brisack, a leader in the Starbucks Workers United effort, who helped win the first-ever Starbucks union at the Elmwood store last December.
Balali started researching. She read Confessions of a Union Buster, Secrets of a Successful Organizer, books by Jane McAlevey, even union constitutions. She watched union movies like Hoffa and Norma Rae. “I just started reading whatever I could find,” she said. “I was obsessed.”
And she started talking to her co-workers. “The sales department is small. I just started reaching out to my friends. They said ‘Yeah, I’m in.’” A group of seven started meeting for breakfast and coffee.
Going Door to Door
Since their job was fully remote, Balali and her core group didn’t have the option of doing union outreach in the break room or in the hallways. “All of our co-workers, who we counted as friends, we haven’t seen in two and a half years,” she said. “New hires? We don’t know who they are. We don’t even talk to them on the phone.”
The GEICO United organizers needed to find a way to reach their 2,600 co-workers in Buffalo.
In New York state, workers in the insurance industry have to be registered as “insurance producers.” Their home addresses are publicly available in a state-run database. So over a period of months, Balali and her co-workers compiled a list of the addresses of GEICO employees in the greater Buffalo area.
Though Balali sells insurance, she doesn’t make cold calls; the sales she handles are initiated by customers who are in the market for an insurance policy. “I was so scared for the first door I knocked on,” she said
“This lady comes out poker-faced. I couldn’t read her, didn’t know her. That first weekend, we had a flyer we made that looked horrible. It was so ugly. I’m standing there, the woman opens the door, I’m looking at the flyer like, ‘Why did I write so much? This is embarrassing.’
“I’m like, ‘We’re trying to make a union.’ She’s shocked. She’s like, ‘I’ll hear your pitch.’ I start laughing, like, ‘We don’t even have a pitch. We’re just employees.’ That softens her up.
“So we’re talking for a while in front of her door. She pauses. It’s a long pause, back to the poker face. I’m like ‘Oh, shit.’
“She calls her husband out. He’s a GEICO employee too. And they both signed right away. They donated. And they’re like, ‘We’re going to get our friends on board.’
“In that first experience we thought, ‘If we want this, we can do this.’ Then we go to the next door and he’s like, ‘I already signed online.’”
Balali and her core group collected 200 signatures in a month — some through their online authorization card, others from their expanding canvassing operation. In those early days, Balali estimates, about 80 percent of people would open their doors, and the vast majority would sign a card.
And then, Balali recalls, “the email comes out.”
On August 12, GEICO sent out an email warning its Buffalo employees that union representatives were visiting workers’ homes. The company wrote that it had not “authorized” such visits, and that “you have every right to contact the police.”
In a follow-up email a week later, the company pointed to Starbucks as an example of a union drive that had achieved no benefits for its members. The email touted the raises and benefits that Starbucks gave only at its non-union stores, a practice for which the National Labor Relations Board has since filed a formal complaint against Starbucks.
GEICO United enlisted the help of pro bono lawyers to file unfair labor practice charges. But the damage was done.
Most people stopped opening their doors when organizers would go canvassing. One of the core organizers, a Black worker who has been at the company for a decade and makes less than $20 an hour, backed out for fear of reprisals.
For all these setbacks, though, Balali says the union is still growing, if slowly. More and more of the signatures are coming through the online card — which workers are finding by social media and word of mouth. Sometimes it is management, probing for details, that inadvertently alerts employees to the effort.