U.S. Employers Spend $340 Million a Year Busting Unions

Experts say the tech industry is no exception.
united auto workers workers union members
United Auto Workers union members picket at the General Motors Hamtramck plant for the sixth week of their national strike against General Motors on October 25, 2019 in Hamtramck, Michigan. Image: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images 

2019 has been a historic year for the labor movement in tech. Google contractors in Pittsburgh unionized. Kickstarter launched a campaign to form what could become the first union at a major tech company. Amazon warehouse workers, Uber drivers, and Instacart grocery delivery workers went on strike.

Tech companies haven’t stood idly by—even those that have long touted progressive values. Google, for one, hired an anti-union consulting firm IRI Consultants in the spring, and fired four workers last month who were organizing for changes at the company. Kickstarter fired two employees who were leading a union campaign at the crowd-sourcing company in September. (Kickstarter claims the workers were fired for performance-related reasons, and denies any retaliation for union organizing.)


A new report on employer opposition to union campaigns released today by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year against union organizing efforts, and were charged with breaking federal labor laws in 41.5 percent of union campaigns in 2016 and 2017. While the authors of the report, who gained access to unfair labor complaints through FOIA requests, could not comment on specific cases, they say the newly organized tech industry is no exception.

“Tech companies have traditionally set themselves aside as a cutting-edge employers. But what you’re seeing increasingly is that they behave the same way as Walmarts and Targets,” Celine McNicholas, one of the report’s authors who reviewed thousands of complaints filed with the NLRB, told Motherboard.. “When faced with demands of improved working conditions and respecting workers’ voices, they turn to union avoidance consultants. They’d rather spend the money there than on addressing the demands of their workforce.”

Under the most conservative estimates, the authors find that employers are charged with unlawfully firing workers in nearly 20 percent of union campaigns. Nearly one third of the union campaigns filed with the NLRB in 2016 and 2017 involved reports of illegal coercion, threats, or retaliation against workers for supporting a union, the study found.

The report also provides important new information on the union avoidance industry, which includes anti-union law and consulting firms. According to new data, U.S. employers spend nearly $340 million each year on advisors that conduct “union vulnerability tests” and provide companies with important recommendations for crushing union drives at their companies. IRI Consultants, the firm Google hired this year, advertises on its website that it “implement[s] successful educational campaigns designed to inform employees about the true impact and cost of unionization in the workplace.”


“Typically these firms come in, they run a union vulnerability test, and try to run an anti-union campaign, telling workers why a union won’t fit into a particular workplace,” McNicholas said.

“A big piece of it is telling an employer that they need to be mindful and monitoring of these organizing activities. Google monitoring the calendars of workers to see if anyone was reserving conference rooms, that kind of surveillance activity is a pretty typical part of what happens during a consulting firm’s union vulnerability test.”

In recent months, fired workers have filed unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) against Google and Kickstarter for retaliating against workplace organizing, which is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Kickstarter denies the allegations. "We have provided extensive documentation and testimony to the NLRB to back this up," a company spokesperson said.

“When it gets to the point of demanding union recognition, employers tend to resort to the same playbook, regardless of whether they are Harvard, or Walmart, or Google,” McNichols said.

This piece has been updated with a statement from Kickstarter.