NLRB Lawyer Wants to Ban Companies’ Favorite Union-Busting Technique

Captive audience meetings have become almost standard practice for companies facing union drives. NLRB’s top lawyer wants to ban them.

The top lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board is calling on the board to ban captive audience meetings, a practice long used by companies to force employees to listen to anti-union propaganda during work hours or while performing work duties, a move a labor lawyer called “huge” and “directly related to Amazon.”

“In workplaces across America, employers routinely hold mandatory meetings in which employees are forced to listen to employer speech concerning the exercise of their statutory labor rights, especially during organizing campaigns,” NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a memo to the board. “Those meetings inherently involve an unlawful threat that employees will be disciplined or suffer other reprisals if they exercise their protected right not to listen to such speech.” 


Captive audience meetings have become so common that they’re almost standard practice when a company faces a union drive. The companies Motherboard has reported holding captive audience meetings in recent years include but are not limited to: a Google contractor, Starbucks, the New York Times, REI, the animation studio that makes Archer, Kickstarter, and the vegan-meat company No Evil Foods.     

But few companies have used the captive audience meeting to the degree Amazon has, said Seth Goldstein, a pro bono attorney for the Amazon Labor Union. ALU filed five captive audience meeting charges with the NLRB, he told Motherboard. “We said the company was being coercive and requested that they ban captive audience meetings. Our issue was lying about statutory rights and threats made there. And it’s pervasive. It’s an ongoing coercive situation. We also had people thrown out of captive audience meetings, told they couldn’t talk.” Motherboard obtained leaked audio from several of Amazon's meetings; in one of them, a union avoidance consultant suggested that unionizing could make things worse for workers and suggested that their salaries might revert to the minimum wage.

Abruzzo’s memo states that the board “incorrectly” permitted captive audience meetings years ago by concluding such meetings don’t violate the National Labor Relations Act. Abruzzo’s interpretation of the act, which includes the right of any employee to “refrain from any or all of such activities,” includes a right not to listen to company talking points regarding unionization, a right that captive audience meetings would deny.

“Captive audience meetings must be declared illegal,” the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama said in a statement. “They are a major weapon employers use to spread disinformation, intimidate workers and interfere with their choice as to whether they want union representation.”

Goldstein said the ban, which he expects the board to enact, would be “another historic step” after the ALU victory in Staten Island.

“This doesn’t stop [the companies] from expressing their opinion,” Goldstein said. “What it does do is stop them from coercing employees.”


union busting, captive audience meetings, starbucks union

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