Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the workplace was estimated to be the fifth-leading cause of death for Americans. Now, for most essential workers — from health care workers and first responders to grocery and warehouse workers — it is now undoubtedly number one. Virtually every day we read wrenching stories of essential workers getting infected, falling ill or even dying by the dozens, not just in hospitals and meat plants, but also at Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Amazon. In the past few days, over 80 Walmart workers — whose CEO says workers are coming in “because they want to serve” — tested positive for COVID-19 in a single store in Worcester, Massachusetts.
More than two months into the pandemic, corporate America is still doing way too little to stop COVID-19 from killing workers. As reflected in thousands of worker complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, corporations have been too slow to adopt essential precautions that could save workers’ lives — masks, gloves and sanitizing supplies, limits on customer numbers, greater store security, masks for customers, fast and free access to COVID-19 testing, accommodations for vulnerable workers, strictly enforced social distancing, and so on.
Instead, in the midst of the pandemic, powerful corporations are pushing to limit their legal liability for worker illness and deaths, and intensifying their war against one thing that would almost certainly make their workplaces safer — unionization.
More “Mayday” Than May Day for Essential Workers
On May Day, employees at Walmart, Target, Amazon, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Instacart engaged in “sickout” protests: workers took unscheduled sick leave en masse to protest working conditions. In response to this wave of activism, one of the country’s most prominent anti-union lobbyists has warned corporations about an increased interest in unionization “for the first time since the early 1980s.”
But these protest actions are unlikely to signal any new dawn for the U.S. labor movement, as some have argued. In most cases, these are low-paid employees, often lacking critical health care and paid sick leave benefits, protesting an absence of essential safety precautions at some of the world’s wealthiest corporations. They are protests borne of utter desperation. Instead of allowing their employees an independent voice on safety concerns, corporations have enlisted the help of so-called “union avoidance experts” to fight these organizing campaigns. Having opposed paid sick leave and higher minimum wages for years, corporations want to decide unilaterally what level of safety is sufficient, what medical benefits workers deserve and what pay is low enough. The jobs are essential — sales have skyrocketed — but the workers are still considered very much disposable.
Behind the cloak of the pandemic, some corporations have enlisted the expertise of anti-union consultants and law firms. In the past, one leading union avoidance law firm likened unions to a “virus” and recommended anti-union actions to “inoculate” new employees against the threat of unionization. The actions of union avoidance consultants and law firms during the coronavirus pandemic suggest the same visceral hatred of unions.
Crushing Unions With Consultants, “Explainer Videos” and “Heat Maps”
Anti-union experts have been busy in the nonunion grocery and warehouse sectors. After its workers started organizing, Trader Joe’s CEO sent employees a “dear valued crew member letter” — replete with decades-old consultant anti-unions tropes — calling unionization a “distraction” and advising employees that unionization was incompatible with being a crew member. The CEO regretted that pandemic restrictions meant that top management was unable to “travel the country talking directly with our Crew Members [presumably on the evils of unionization] as we normally do.” The letter, which circulated widely on social media, bears all the hallmarks of being written by a union avoidance expert: accusing the union of “driving discontent” and “seeking to capitalize on the current unstable environment,” telling employees that the union is spreading “misinformation and fear,” and characterizing its own anti-union propaganda as “facts.” Following standard operating procedure in consultant-led campaigns, Trader Joe’s also distributed anti-union talking points for store managers to use with their workers.
Workers at Amazon warehouses and Amazon-owned Whole Foods grocery stores have protested unsafe conditions during the pandemic, as their colleagues have fallen ill or died. Amazon — which has taken algorithmic management and worker surveillance to new heights — has repeatedly used anti-union consultants and their “explainer videos” to crush labor campaigns in recent years. In the past few weeks, Amazon has sacked and smeared the leader of a union drive at its Staten Island warehouse, and fired two Seattle headquarter-based tech workers who criticized unsafe conditions in the warehouses, which an Amazon vice president lambasted as a “chickenshit move” in his letter of resignation.
For years, consultants have conducted union vulnerability assessments or audits for corporations using various data-driven and industrial psychology tools. Amazon is now using data-powered “heat maps” (which aggregate data on “external” and “internal” risk factors, including store proximity to union activity, employee complaints about store labor violations and the “diversity index” of the store’s workforce) — which, along with “dark sites” and spyware, are new technologies of union avoidance — to assess the vulnerability of its Whole Foods stores to unionization. Like other tech giants, Amazon’s deep commitment to anti-unionism has been well served by union avoidance experts and their bag of tricks.
Forced Anti-Union Meetings and the Specter of Pandemic Unemployment
In the midst of the pandemic, consultants have conducted many other anti-union campaigns that are much less likely to attract national attention. During several campaigns, they have forced essential workers to attend “captive audience speeches” — mandatory anti-union meetings which are unlawful in most developed democracies — even if doing so could risk their health.
One might think that the union avoidance industry would draw the line at harassing nurses caring for COVID-19 patients. But even at hospitals preparing for the pandemic, anti-union consultants have forced nurses to attend captive audience meetings. In Asheville, North Carolina, a hospital administration has twice pleaded with the National Labor Relations Board to delay a union election for its nurses — consultants always advocate election delay because it lengthens the duration of anti-union campaigns — claiming that pandemic preparations have prevented it focusing on the election. At the same time, the hospital’s anti-union consultants have required nurses from each department to attend captive meetings, a practice that, according to union officials, could have spread infection throughout the hospital. Several union avoidance firms specialize in health care campaigns. Some consultants have even blamed hospital protests for shortages of masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment on nurses who “point fingers” and “socially irresponsible” health care unions that are always seeking to “blame the system.”
The “pandemic economy” has also featured prominently in consultant anti-union campaigns. For example, at a nuclear power station in Glen Rose, Texas, consultants have raised the threat of pandemic unemployment. According to union officials, anti-union consultants have required workers to attend multiple captive meetings — in groups of nine, so as to comply with local regulations prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people — and have raised the issue of high unemployment in the Texas oil industry to discourage workers from voting for the union. The specter of pandemic-level unemployment will likely haunt consultant campaigns for some time.
Union Avoidance Just Turned Deadly
The United States is the only nation on Earth to have an entire industry of consultants and law firms dedicated to preventing workers from forming unions, one that doesn’t even stop during a deadly pandemic. Indeed, corporate anti-union activities have likely intensified, as these actions have largely gone unnoticed as the pandemic has dominated the country’s attention. Union busting started long before coronavirus and it will likely continue long after, no matter how many low-paid grocery and warehouse workers or “finger-pointing” nurses die in the process. The scourge of union-busting has always hurt workers — contributing to unsafe workplaces and lousy nonunion wages and benefits — but the harm it inflicts is potentially lethal during the pandemic.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Essential employees deserve proper protections and unions would provide them with a voice in determining their own conditions. If we want the safe workplaces that will enable us to restart the economy, we must tame the union busters.