The shady consultants bosses hire to dissuade workers from unionizing
Most people often think of “union-busting” only in terms of overt and even illegal tactics like termination and intimidation, but most bosses first opt for subtler, more sophisticated activities to discourage worker organizing. Enter the “persuaders,” also known as union avoidance consultants—professional firms who offer bosses the specialized service of spreading union disinformation and sowing confusion in the ranks of workers. TRNN Associate Editor Mel Buer speaks with Dave Jamieson of The Huffington Post on the shady world of persuaders and what workers attempting to organize can expect if one shows up at their job.
Studio Production: Adam Coley
Post-Production: Alina Nehlich
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Welcome back to another episode of the Real News Network podcast. My name is Mel Buer and I’m a staff reporter here at the Real News Network. I am so glad that you’re back with us.
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Over the last couple of years, Libra Organizing has experienced a resurgence across the United States. High profile organizing drives, contract fights, and strikes have been given considerable airtime by local and national outlets, which in turn has exposed new audiences to the ways in which unions organize and fight for their working members.
Just as these audiences are learning about the American Labor Movement, they’re also learning about the ruthlessness of the employers who fight tooth and nail to prevent unions from gaining a foothold in the workplace. One of these union-busting tactics is to bring in outside union avoidance consultants, or persuaders, to try and sow doubt and discord among the unionizing employees.
As labor reporters, when looking into union drives and elections, we often hear stories of the union avoidance firms who come onto the shop floor and attempt to dissuade workers from organizing. This million dollar industry deploys armies of subcontractors to achieve these ends, and despite their reputation for derailing union drives across the country, the exact nature of the industry and the money that flows through it is harder to pin down.
With us today to talk about this elusive industry is Dave Jamieson, who has been HuffPost’s labor reporter since 2011. His recent five-part investigative series, the Persuaders, was just released at HuffPost and attempts to pull back the curtain on the union-busting industry. Before joining the DC Bureau, Dave was a staff writer at Washington City Paper and a freelancer contributing to Slate, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and Outside Magazine, among other outlets.
He’s won the Livingston Award for young journalists, the Hillman Foundation Sidney Award, and the Deadline Club Award for best business feature. He’s also the author of a nonfiction book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession. Welcome, Dave. Thanks for joining us today.
Good to be here, Mel.
Let’s get right into it. In your five-part series and one of the articles titled Inside Corporate America’s Favorite Union Busting Firm, you spent some time examining Labor Relations Institute, a notorious union buster who boasts thousands of successful anti-union campaigns. I myself learned about LRI when writing a story about a contentious and ultimately unsuccessful union drive at private equity backed Sabre Industries in Sioux City, Iowa back in 2022.
It’s kind of a gnarly beast to try and reach in and see what’s going on there. More broadly, can you shed some light on the firms, these union-busting firms? How do they usually operate? What’s the sort of process by which they get engaged in these anti-union campaigns?
So it’s a really interesting world. The whole system generally runs on subcontracting. You have the persuaders themselves who go into the workplace to talk to the workers and basically run a campaign against the union, which involves figuring out how individuals plan to vote, figure out who’s on the fence and who’s persuadable.
But to get those people, companies usually, employers usually go through firms like the Labor Relations Institute. LRI is probably the best known, I think. A lot of the big name companies like Dollar General, Cisco, Aramark, they over the years have all gone through LRI.
LRI, interestingly, I went down to Tulsa. They’re based in Broken Arrow, which is a suburb of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and it’s just this kind of dinky little office between a dog grooming shop and a bar, and it is just built on subcontracting.
So you, as an employer, reach out to LRI. LRI links you up with a persuader or a group of persuaders who are based all over the place. A lot of these folks are out of California. And LRI essentially just takes a cut. And what I was able to see generally in court documents is my best guess is LRI keeps about half of the fees.
So the kind of going rate in the industry these days is like 3,200 or 3,500 a day for a persuader. So a firm like LRI, you might be paying the 3,500 for Joe the persuader. About half of that is probably going to LRI and you’re essentially paying sort of a broker’s fee or an administrative fee. So firms like LRI, it’s very hard to get a handle on the money, in part because the disclosure requirements are really weak. But LRI has been dishing out in the millions each year to their subcontractors, so they probably have quite a bit of money coming in, especially as there have been a lot of union election petitions and a lot of organizing going on.
It’s not clear to me whether employers really know that they’re kind of paying a significant finder’s fee when they go through a firm like LRI, but that’s basically what they’re doing.
In your series, you kind of spend pretty significant amount of time laying out exactly what these union avoidance campaigns look like. You’ve touched on this briefly already in your first article in the series, Workers Wanted a Union, Then the Mysterious Men Showed Up, these persuaders often view their work in militaristic terms, which I also came across in my brief examination of LRI.
They have a white paper that you can find on their website essentially comparing union organizing drives to placing IEDs in the road in Iraq, which is a wild comparison to make. But these campaigns that they wage against workers are obviously very calculated with the express goal of keeping a union out of the workplace.
Can you just expand a little bit on this, what this looks like? And additionally, these consultants often have a background in the labor movement. A lot of times they come from organizing positions such as with the teamsters or, in my brief touch on it, with IBEW, and then they somehow, through whatever reasons, end up on the other side of the line there and start working as consultants.
Can you just give us a sense of how that plays into this calculation for how these campaigns work in the workplace?
Sure. So as the union organizer said to me, the consultants essentially run an organizing campaign like the union organizers, only in reverse. And I was able to see this in documents we got through records requests where essentially files where the consultants are creating daily notes, they’re building spreadsheets, they’re rating individuals on their levels of union support, usually on a scale of one to five say, where a one would be pro-company in their words, meaning anti-union, and five would be very pro-union.
And so you’re sort of mapping out the entire workplace, getting a feel for, okay, if the election was held today, how would it go? And crucially, who are our fencers, the folks on the fence and what is our sort of best line of persuasion for them? And so you see in a lot of these cases, their persuaders are writing files like Mel here grew up a mile from the facility. We think they’re concerned about job stability. They have a 10 year-old kid at home, so they want to make sure their job’s going to be there.
These are literally, that’s something that was in some of these files, a case like that where they’re really diving into workers’ personal lives to figure out what will be sort of the best argument against a union. And so they’re sort of trading notes on individual workers and they’re running a campaign hard on the ground right up until the ballots are cast.
So I think a lot of people assume this job is mostly about corralling workers in the break room and giving them a speech about how unions fail to deliver and you might never get a contract. You might end up going on strike, blah, blah, blah, and that is a big part of it. But what they’re also doing is this sort of behind-the-scenes work.
I mean literally, if you are in one of these meetings, you are being observed. They’re looking for cues on where your leanings are on a union. And so that is really sort of the more behind-the-scenes work that is going on. Of course, unions are doing something similar on their own end of, you want to know whether Joe is for the worker or against or if Joe is persuadable, what’s the best argument we can make to make Joe a union voter?
Big difference is that the union doesn’t have guaranteed access to the workers the way the employer does. The employer in mandatory fashion can require everybody come in and hear what our persuader has to say about why unions suck.
Well, and certainly the employer’s furnishing all of this information to these consultants in a way that maybe the unions don’t also have access. And certainly as part of my reporting, I’ve heard what happens inside these captive audience meetings. And it’s definitely one of those things where individuals are surveilled and are separated out based on how militant maybe they respond to these meetings. And certainly they seek to drive wedges in between this sort of burgeoning organizing solidarity on the shop floor.
And they use really sometimes vague language. They’re very good at manipulating conversation and toeing this line of what the language is. They are often saying, “We’re not discouraging you from joining this union,” even though there are giant posters on the wall that say vote no. But they use the language of, “We’re just trying to tell you the truth about what this looks like.”
And I think a lot of times coming from the labor movement, they can use that as a bit of authority to say, “Look, I did this and it did work,” or what have you. And I think that’s a huge piece of it. This really is kind of like a counterinsurgency in the workplace.
Most of these folks sort of hold themselves out as kind of neutral parties, even though they’re obviously hired by the employer, they’re paid thousands of dollars and they have a purpose in being there. They will say, “Hey, we’re just here to give the facts. I’ve been in this world and you may not know what a union is really like and how collective bargaining works, so I’m going to explain it to you.”
An interesting thing I saw in a lot of case files at the National Labor Relations Board, and I went back through years and years basically finding any case I could where these consultants ended up speaking, testifying in a hearing, often under subpoena. And in a lot of cases, the judge later wrote, I didn’t believe what this guy said because he insisted that he was a neutral party, even under testimony claimed he was there just to educate.
And so I actually talked to quite a few persuaders, the ones that would speak to me, and it is kind of a mixed bag from a personal standpoint. I was a lot more likely to believe you and what you had to say to me if you were upfront about the purpose of your work. And some of them are. I think others, for whatever reason, insist on hiding the ball, contrary to all logic.
Interestingly, I did, one persuader I interviewed and ended up writing about a guy named Joe Brock who used to be a teamster himself. He was a president at Local 830 in Philadelphia. I found him to be pretty forthcoming about his work and his experience, which is frankly a little refreshing. And he talked a bit about sort of the competitive nature of the job, right? They are running a campaign on the other side of the union. And if they’re being honest, they want to win.
And so even though a lot of these folks would say, even in board testimony that I don’t have a dog in this fight essentially, it’s the employee’s choice. I could see in their notes that were given over as part of subpoena that you are strategizing on how to defeat the union. You are trying to turn yes votes into no votes and maybe notes into no votes. And it’s all very clear. This all has a very clear purpose to it.
Wasn’t Joe Brock briefly the main character on Twitter last week for responding to some folks about being a proud union buster and brought up his-
Yeah. Brock defended his line of work. I think he felt that in my series, I tended to write about some of the more colorful characters. Like my first story was about speaking of colorful to persuaders who went into a workplace under fake names, Jack Black and Alex Green. And another common thread I saw in all my research was frankly, a lot of persuaders not being forthcoming about who they are. I’m not saying about lying about their identities, but it’s clear in a lot of case notes and in workers’ testimony under oath that they didn’t always know who they were talking to or they couldn’t get a last name out of the consultant.
And there are reasons why consultants might want to hide their last names. They have backgrounds that they may not want workers poking around. And some of them, many of them, as you mentioned earlier, come out of unions. One guy I saw on board testimonies, he was writing in his notes, so-and-so was asking my last name today, suggesting that he wasn’t telling workers his last name. And this was a union official who had been, whose union while he was there had been put in a trusteeship and he was sued under this alleged scheme of no-show jobs and whatnot. And that was his break from the labor movement, and he turned up consulting.
So there are certain things that I think they don’t want workers to know about. Now in this extreme case, these guys literally used aliases and workers did not know who they were dealing with. Workers testified months later at a hearing referring to this guy under his fake name because that is what they knew. And it turned out this gentleman had a recent felony conviction for stalking in Florida, what I think is relevant information that workers might want to know.
And frankly, I think someone with that history might have a hard time getting work if people know about that sort of history. And so yeah, it is a very interesting world of, in that case, sort of overt deception if you want to say. And also sort of a more general among other persuaders, well, they don’t need to know my whole story here.
Right. In your third article in the series, you focused on the tactics that Union Busters use specifically against immigrant workers, especially in the last couple of decades. The organizing in the workplace has really focused a lot on including and bringing in immigrant workers as a key point in the labor movement and a key point in many industries in this country, which is a net positive in my opinion.
What are some of the strategies that you found that are specifically targeted to dissuading immigrant workers from joining a union in the workplace, and how are consultants marketing themselves to these employers who use these tactics?
Yeah, it is a really sort of interesting sub-industry of the industry, which is why I wanted to write about it. This world of bilingual consultants who get called in basically when there’s a lot of Latino workers. And these are, in my research, turned out to be a lot of, in some cases, the most sort of lucrative campaigns on the consultant side because you’re talking about large facilities, say in food production, where there’s a lot of workers and a lot of them are Latin American immigrants.
And one case I wrote about was actually a small workplace in Philadelphia at a company called United Scrap Metal as a recycling facility where they brought in a bilingual consultant. And I had sort of their internal notes between the consultants and the company about sort of, how do we handle this? And it was just very interesting to see the consultants saying, “Well, we’ve done the breakdown and the support is primarily among the Honduran workers as opposed to the workers from Guatemala and El Salvador.”
And so they’re trying to get a read on the demographics at play during a union campaign. And one of the most interesting things I saw in all my research was in this case, I sort of developed this strategy of where, okay, we’re going to sort of equate the union with dictators, their words, from these workers’ home countries. And so the whole idea was to sort of appeal to workers’ backgrounds in a way that could make them question whether they could trust the union. And the union in this case was the Laborers International or LIUNA.
And so they actually created flyers equating the LIUNA with Juan Orlando Hernandez, the former president of Honduras who’s been indicted on drugs and arms charges in the US. And so these are the kinds of things you might see or hear about in a campaign involving immigrants that basically nobody hears about because this was a campaign that had nobody out on Twitter flogging support for the workers and that sort of thing.
It was just one of these many campaigns that kind of happens in the dark, and in this case it was around 30 workers and it was just kind of a sign of how far employers will sometimes go to prevent, in this case, really a couple dozen workers from collective bargaining. And workers, the union actually ended up winning that election two and-a-half years ago, but they still don’t have a contract. The litigation is still going on, the company is not bargaining, and now it’s in federal court, which can be a real mess for a union. So employers, they can and they do take it very far to the bitter end.
We see this more broadly and perhaps in more high profile ways in terms of how much money employers are willing to spend to keep workers out on strike. But again, it’s never about the money, it’s never about the profit sharing, it’s never about any of that. It’s about not ceding power to collective worker action in the workplace, and it really is kind of ruthless in the ways that employers will engage, in this case, union avoidance. It’s such a nice way to say Union Buster.
Essentially just these consultants to drive wedges between workers who have quite a bit to gain from collective organization in a workplace. The thing that really gets me too, and this kind of gets to our last question here, is that it’s well known that employers use these union-busting firms and campaigns all over the country. We hear about it. They’re oftentimes kind of offhandedly mentioned in high-profile union drives that either fail or don’t fail.
I think of things like Colectivo Coffee, and to a certain extent, sometimes Starbucks, some of the various things. And independent research projects like Labor Lab have done a tremendous amount of work tracking the anti-union consultants as they land in these workplaces all over the country. Labor Lab has a interactive map that you can kind of pull up various workplaces that are holding union campaigns and see what consultants have been contracted for which.
And I believe they use the data from OMLS, so they’re pulling forms called LM-20s and LM-10s to see this paperwork that should be filed on behalf of these consultants and the employers who pay the money out to them. But still, so much of this industry is kind of shrouded in secrecy. Why is it so difficult to break through that opacity and be able to shed light on what is a multi-million dollar industry that really has its fingers in every workplace dispute or organization across the country? Why can’t we find more information?
So the disclosures are a real mixed bag. On the nice end, the disclosure requirements are there, right? There’s a law from 1959. It’s the same law that says every union’s got to file this huge book of an annual report and disclose everyone’s salaries, blah, blah, blah, which I like that as well as a reporter. I think the union transparency is important.
It also requires transparency on the employer side. Unfortunately, that stuff is not very well enforced. There’s requirements that if you’re a consultant and Amazon or whoever hires me, I’m supposed to send in a transparent report within 30 days so that workers know who I am and what I’m being paid. It’s poorly enforced, it’s poorly followed. These things are filed late all the time, and unfortunately, they’re often filed after the campaign has ended when the disclosures are really of no value to the workers.
And why are the disclosures important? Look, this is a workplace election. Just like a US political election, I think people deserve to know how money is influencing them, and there’s often a lot of money pouring into these campaigns. Workers deserve to know who’s lobbying them and what they’re being paid.
So often the consultants, they say they just had an oral agreement with the employer. Frankly, it’s kind of hard to believe in a lot of cases that any company is going to basically write a blank check on the consulting work and not have something in writing. And just in a lot of cases, workers don’t know who they’re dealing with. I talked to people who’ve written to me over the years, so-and-so has been consulting in my place, and there’s no record of it. I think she consulted this other place. And it’s just people that have a very poor handle on what’s going on.
And so I think that’s part of the frustration with advocates on the worker side is to get some teeth to the enforcement. And I think frankly, they are doing a better job under Biden. It was kind of a joke during the Trump years, at least that’s what the data suggests. We saw disclosures plummet. Some of that may have been the consultants getting less work. It’s hard to imagine that that really accounts for the drop off. I think a lot of the consultants and employers thought, well, nobody’s watching things right now, so no need to file.
So they are bugging people. Even a consultant told me, he’s like, I feel like I’m being harassed these days by this office. But there almost never, I found no documented case of someone being prosecuted for willfully ignoring the requirements. And another downside is on the employer side, even if you’re following the law, you can file these so late that people don’t find out what the company spent until after they voted.
A perfect example is Amazon. Companies spent millions of dollars combating the campaigns in Alabama and on Staten Island. Well, Amazon, guess what? They were not required to file until the very end of March. They were literally counting the ballots at JFK8 when Amazon’s disclosure came through.
So it would’ve been nice for workers to say, “Hey, here’s a form that says Amazon spent $4 million last year,” or, “This past year, Amazon spent $13 million,” or whatever. But you often don’t have that information until frankly, it’s no longer valuable. And so again, the disclosures are nice in that gives us a general sense of where these consultants are operating and who’s using them. But you really can’t trust the system and you cannot trust it at all, in my opinion, to really put a peg on how much money is flowing through this world. That is unknowable under this current system.
Well, and even just a sort of cursory look at what is filed, you know it’s an astronomical amount of money. Any workplaces that are filing this paperwork late, you’re still seeing millions of dollars for any one campaign. You have to think if you’re paying $3,200 a day for one consultant and maybe they bring on a team of two or three others that come into a workplace of 60 people, they hang out for multiple weeks. I mean, that’s a lot of money that employers are willing to throw into keeping workers from organizing collectively in the workplace. And when you try to wrap your head around it, it really does kind of boggle the mind just how much money is flowing through.
And in a lot of these cases, workers, they’re pushing for a dollar raise or whatever. So I think for a lot of them, it’s galling to see that a sort of not even particularly large company just spent $200,000 on these consultants.
And I talked to workers to that effect. One place, El Milagro, food maker in Illinois where they, according to disclosure, spent well over a million dollars on consultants. And I talked to workers there who said they were fighting for basic raises, and to see how much was spent was kind of mystifying to them.
Right. And again, it comes back to the point that it’s not about the money that they would spend on a dollar or two dollar raise over two years or what have you, right? It’s about ceding power to workers at the workplace and not shutting the door on them before you can even try and force them to offer you a seat at the table.
And this is fantastic work that you’ve been doing, and I think it’s much needed in trying to shed light on this industry. It has quite a hold on the organizing and is quite a big backstop against broader organizing capacity and hopefully continued conversations about what’s happening with the union-busting industry might lead to strengthening of the laws that would actually bring consequences against these individuals who flout the law in the course of the anti-union campaign, or don’t file the paperwork quick enough.
Because right now, even the fines assessed for not filing paperwork is a drop in the bucket for a multimillion-dollar corporation. Fantastic work. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about this today. Could you please let folks know where to find you, find your work, what you’re working on, what’s next for you?
Sure. Yeah. My stuff is up on huffpost.com. I’m also on Twitter or X or whatever it’s being called today. My handle’s Jamieson, J-A-M-I-E-S-O-N. And yeah, more labor stories to come. I appreciate your interest in the series, Mel. It was fun to dig into this world for a while.
It is pretty maddening. It’s kind of like falling down the rabbit hole in many senses, so really great work. That’s it for us here at the Real News Network podcast. Once again, I’m Mel Buer, staff reporter at The Real News Network. Follow us on your favorite social media, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter so we can continue bringing you independent ad-free journalism. Until next time.