Organizing a workplace isn’t easy. It’s a boss’s world, and the ruling class wants to make sure that workers know it—especially when unions enter the conversation. But enter the conversation they have, between the furious news cycle around Amazon workers fighting to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama, and pro-union plugs from the likes of the ex-Duchess of Sussex herself, which means anti-union rhetoric is sure to follow.
Writer and labor organizer Jonah Furman told VICE it’s always in management’s interest to claim that they’re on the same playing field as the people they employ, and that union activity is led by self-interested outsiders who complicate our relationship with our employers and the job market.. “The time and labor that you’re selling are not just commodities, and it's not true that workers can just go get another job if they don't like the one they have, or that they can just quit,” Furman said. “That's obviously not what the labor market is, and to understand it that way is a willful distortion.”
According to experts, that’s far from the last time management will try to get one over on workers to stop them from unionizing. Between the time workers leading a union drive start building support internally and the time they vote through the National Labor Review Board, the government agency that regulates unions, one thing is certain: management will spread anti-union rhetoric throughout that process. Luckily, that rhetoric is predictable, which means it can be fought with some pretty basic tactics.
Anti-union rhetoric might come from managers, manager’s managers, a website with slick graphic design, a consultant or by a lawyer, or during a “captive audience meeting,” an anti-union session that’s as creepy as the name suggests. (See Motherboard’s reporting on talking points like “unions won’t be able to handle sexual harassment claims” and “we poured our entire savings into this company, please be cool” used in captive audience meetings by the founders of vegan “socialist” meat company No Evil Foods).
You might even hear some ambient anti-union rhetoric, because unions are not part of the capitalist dream. “Anti-union campaigns don't actually have to persuade workers,” labor historian and University of Chicago assistant professor Gabriel Winant told VICE. “All they have to do is make them feel freaked out and make them feel anxious.”
Because of this, author and union organizer Jane McAlevey told VICE it’s essential to get ahead of management’s campaign and “inoculating” workers against these lines of attack. “From the first worker I talk to when they form a union, to the first committee meeting, and to every meeting and every single conversation from there on out, I am talking about what you should expect next from the employer. That way, the workers understand: Oh, this is actually not about the boss trying to be nice to us, because they're going to do this over and over, everywhere in the country.”
Want to be the change you want to see in the working world? Here are a few evergreen attacks deployed against union drives, and why experts in the field say they don’t hold water.
“Unions prop up losers, and you’re not a loser, right?”
The myth that unions shield “lazy” workers at the expense of a workplace’s highest achievers is a common one (which is funny, because who is lazier than a manager who makes six figures to “just check in” periodically while other people do all the actual work).
Organizer Furman said one of the easiest ways to rebut the idea that unions drive talent away is to look at two of the industries with the most powerful unions in the U.S.: professional sports and acting. “The NFL, the Major League Baseball, the NBA, Hollywood, they all have very strong unions,” Furman said. “They don't ‘protect bad basketball players.’ If it were true that excellence at your job means you don't need a union, then why are the best workers we know of—the people who are on TV for how good they are at their jobs—union members?”
He also pointed out that keeping some less-than-stellar workers afloat is a small price to pay for retaining workplace protections for everyone else. According to Furman, if you ask: “‘Do bad workers deserve minimum wage?’ part of the question is not just about ‘What does that individual person deserve?’ but ‘If we let that person fall below the minimum wage, how will it erode standards for everybody?’”
“Union dues are so expensive—why pay all that money?”
Does anyone want to spend money on things besides vintage glassware, $17 sandwiches, or trips to Mykonos in 2023? Obviously not, and the regular person’s distaste for forking over their income is something that management will absolutely try to exploit. Union organizers are emphatic, however, that paying into a union will put money back into your pocket by giving you bargaining power.
“There's no way, unless you voted in, or a majority of your co-workers voted in, a contract that took money out of your pocket, that you would lose money by joining the union,” Furman said. “Dues are a percentage of the money you make. So, if dues are 1 percent of your wages, but the union contract is worth a 10 percent raise, then, yes, you're paying dues to the union. But you're up 9 percent.”
“A union will only make the powerful people here at work (you know, cis white m*n) more powerful.”
A particularly potent management tactic involves painting unions as racist and sexist—which is complicated, according to McAlevey. “Because unions are composed of people—and the United States has a deep history of racializing its workforce, beginning with slaves—racism is a significant issue in many unions,” she wrote in her 2020 book A Collective Bargain. The same, she wrote, goes for sexism.
Despite this legacy, however, it is undeniable that non-white people, women, and non-white women see significant benefits as a result of their union membership. “If you look at the differential pay and benefits for women who are unionized—and for that matter, people of color as well as women of color—everyone in a union is better compensated,” McAlevey wrote. “(According to the most recent data, the comparison of union to nonunion wages across all people in the United States is $1,041 to $829 weekly.)”
That doesn’t mean racism and sexism in union history didn’t happen or wasn’t violent; it just means that management should not be able to weaponize that history to take benefits away from today’s most vulnerable workers.
“Some unions exist to bully—do you really want to be in the same labor movement as cops?”
Though Furman said he’s never heard this talking point deployed by management, it’s undeniable that police unions got some serious hate this summer for the way they shield cops from consequences. He did say, however, that cities sometimes point to police union power as a way to duck their own accountability.
“Union contracts are contracts between the union and management, so every time you see a police union contract that says, ‘we agree that the cops get 48 hours before they have to talk to a lawyer after killing someone,’ that's something that the city has agreed to,” Furman said. “When it's convenient, [the city] can then say, ‘Oh, the union is just too strong.’ Well, teachers unions are strong, nurses unions are strong, and they don't get to kill people.”
“Unions aren’t right for our workplace...”
As tech, media, and academia start to unionize, Winant said management will try to deploy “semi-historical” arguments about why a union might be a fit for blue collar workers, but just doesn’t gel with your start-up’s energy. “You always hear a version of this: ‘My dad was a truck driver and I saw how important a union was in that industry, but our industry is nothing like that industry, right? Because we're a team here, and we're flexible and we're creative.”
That argument, however, is a dead end as long as workers anywhere find themselves at the mercy of their boss’s whims. If your boss tells you outright that a union just isn’t right for your workplace, because you’re a strong, tight-knit team—like a family, really!—and it would be a real shame to let outsiders bring tension and division into the picture, you might want to gnaw your leg off like a coyote and run for the hills. (Would someone on my team tell me that making minimum wage with no paid time off “builds character?”)
McAlevey said it’s important for the workers who are most enthusiastic about unionizing to identify and bring in workers who command respect across the company, and persuade them to join the drive. Then, everyone involved needs to have an honest and realistic conversation about how to win, and what challenges—like management rhetoric—stand in the way. After that, she said, the fight begins in earnest.
“It could be quick, or it could be long, and that depends on which union-busting consultants the boss hires, how effective they are, and how quickly the boss hires those consultants,” McAlevey said. “There's all these variables that play out. What doesn't change is, if the employer gets ahead of you, you're in very big trouble.”
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