John Oliver rips union busting by companies: ‘It’s all about killing momentum’

Last Week Tonight host explains how large companies break up unionization drives and the ineffective consequences for breaking the law

John Oliver explored the many sinister and effective methods through which US companies bust unionization drives on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, at one of the worst times for organized labor in the country’s history. Though nearly half of non-union workers say they would like to be in a union, only 10.8% of American workers belong to one, just above half the rate of unionization in 1983.

“If you’ve never been through a union organizing drive yourself, you might assume that a union vote is a completely free and fair election,” the host explained. But “that is an illusion fed by executives like Jeff Bezos,” who told Business Insider in 2018 that Amazon didn’t “believe that we need a union to be an intermediary between us and our employees, but of course at the end of the say, it’s always the employees’ choice”.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m personally not comforted by hearing one of the richest men on earth say ‘it’s your choice,’” said Oliver. “No matter the context, all I can hear is, ‘spear or arrow, how would you prefer to be hunted, it’s your choice.”

Oliver delved into a major reason for unions’ declining power in the private sector: the ability of large companies such as Amazon, Starbucks and Target to prevent unionization drives and protract contract negotiations with relatively few and meaningless consequences.

Such “union busting” begins, Oliver explained, with preventing workers from holding a secret ballot election, typically through influence campaigns and intimidation. During a recent unionization attempt at a center in Bessemer, Alabama, for example, Amazon inundated workers with anti-union signs throughout the workplace, including in bathroom stalls, and used workers’ contact information to send multiple anti-union text messages per day. Both Starbucks and Amazon held “captive audience meetings” disguised as union information sessions to persuade workers not to organize.

Companies also engage in scare tactics regarding union dues; in 2019, Delta Airlines produced posters which told employees to use the $700 for union dues toward “a new video game system with the latest hits.”

“Telling your workers to play video games instead of unionizing is incredibly condescending, and doubly so when you consider video game characters are the ultimate example of exploited labor,” Oliver said. “Think about it: they take orders all day, usually get paid in coins, and not once in 36 years of playing Mario have I ever seen him get to take a bathroom break. Not once!

“And you might say, well, of course a union collects dues, how else are they going to have the resources to fight for their members?” he continued. But anti-union consulting firms retained by large companies “will insist that unions simply take money and offer nothing in return”.

One 2016 video by the Labor Relations Institute, Inc, an anti-labor consulting firm, argued that unions sent out “high-pressure salespeople” to sell a “bill of goods” because declining membership meant unions were “in danger of going out of business”.

“Just to be clear, that is a for-profit consulting firm being paid by a for-profit company arguing that unions are only in it for the money,” said Oliver. “It’s not even the pot calling the kettle black, it’s the pot calling the kettle a pot. It’s like being called a bad first date by Ted Bundy.”

It is also easy for companies to engage in illegal intimidation with little recourse. Though it is against the law for companies to threaten workers’ jobs if they unionize, it is legal for companies to “predict” that a workplace will close should a workforce unionize, “which is obviously not a real distinction”, said Oliver. “When a loanshark threatens to break your legs, that’s not meaningfully different from a loanshark predicting that legs will be broken as a result of market forces related to lack of payment.”

Penalties for companies wrongfully terminating pro-union employees are “just pathetic”, said Oliver. A company might be forced to provide backpay, “but that on its own is a pretty small price for them to pay if it helps them crush a union”.

Which is why US employers are charged with violating federal law in over 41% of union election campaigns, “because why wouldn’t they?” Oliver exclaimed. “Even when the charges are proven, the consequences are laughable.”

The host then offered a few potential fixes, starting with the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or Pro Act, currently working through Congress, which would outlaw captive audience meetings and prevent employers from protracting negotiations for years. “Perhaps most importantly, it would put real financial penalties in place to prevent companies from violating workers’ rights without consequence,” Oliver said.

“But until that law is passed, and it should pass, one of the most important things a worker could do is to try not to get disheartened during a campaign,” he added, “which I know isn’t easy, but union busting is all about killing momentum, splintering unity, and exhausting workers’ spirits.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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