VOICES: Lessons from the union busting at No Evil Foods
In late 2019, I moved to Asheville, North Carolina, after accepting a job that I believed would be the start of a career path: I was going to work for vegan meat producer No Evil Foods in nearby Weaverville. As someone who quit eating animal products nearly a decade ago, I was stoked about working in plant meat production. And as a lefty, I was attracted to the progressive image of the company, which sells a mock chicken product called "Comrade Cluck" and offered a mock chorizo called "El Zapatista" that's now being phased out.
The privately owned firm employs more than 60 people. The office of the co-founders — Chief Executive Officer Mike Woliansky and Chief Creative Officer Sadrah Schadel, who called themselves "revolutionary leaders" — was in the same building as the production facility, so they saw us workers every day, often greeting us by name. Not far from their shared office was a kitchen area, and just beyond the door to that kitchen a massive placard hung on the wall with a giant solidarity fist proclaiming: "Do No Evil."
I ate it all up. In retrospect, I was naive.
About a month after joining the No Evil Foods crew, I learned of a union organizing drive at the plant with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). I liked my job, but there were issues I knew a union could fix. I also wanted what was great about the job to be kept that way through an actual contract. But above all, I knew that a union could provide the job security denied to millions of workers like me living in so-called "right-to-work" states, where someone employed without a union contract can be fired for almost any reason, or even no reason at all. So I wasted no time scribbling my signature on a union card.
I was not prepared for what came next. None of us were — and that was our first mistake. Because when No Evil Foods learned their production workers were looking into unionization, the company didn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact, their response was a carbon-copy, tried-and-true set of tactics that have been used against workers for decades, strategies that have been perfected by "management consultants" or "union avoidance consultants" — in other words, union busters.
The union busting that ensued last year at No Evil Foods offers a textbook example of how companies respond when workers attempt to unionize. That means it also provides a useful case study for workers to learn from.
I hope my story will help others to be better prepared than we were.
I learned about union busting by studying Martin J. Levitt, a former "management consultant" who went to work for the other side and back again. He wrote the 1993 book "Confessions of a Union Buster" documenting his two decades of experience helping lead "union avoidance" campaigns at workplaces across the country, from coal mines to restaurants to retirement communities. "I worked for religious organizations, for nonprofit charitable organizations. It didn't matter what the cloak of business was," he told The New York Times in a 1993 interview. "The sentiment was universal."
Companies believe unions "pose a threat to control" of the business, Levitt stated, pointing to a key theme throughout his book.
"Control was both the objective and the method in union busting," he said. "Bosses came to me, and from me they learned how to attack a union from every position on the board. They learned the secrets of staying in control and on the offensive during an organizing drive."
Almost 30 years after publication of Levitt's book, the strategies he described are still being used to defeat workplace organizing. We've seen them play out during union drives at large companies like Amazon, where after losing an April election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the Retail Workers and Department Store Union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging unfair and illegal tactics including forcing workers to attend lectures where they were fed misinformation about unions.
Workers also encounter classic union-busting strategies during organizing drives at small companies like No Evil Foods, where management made what I believe to be their first move against the union in early 2020. That's when they broke up the workers into random, rotating groups and gave us a space to "air our grievances" about anything and everything. At the time, this seemed benign enough, even commendable. But as I later learned from Levitt, the owners may have had an ulterior motive.
In his book, Levitt called the approach the "Employee Roundtable." It's a strategy "purportedly designed to give workers a way to air their grievances and influence company policy" as he observed, but functions as "management's tap into the worker grapevine and its repressive thumb on the informal worker power structure. The regular group meetings provided management with a system for planting information, as well as for identifying and controlling the leaders among the employees."
"By continually changing the makeup of the employee committee," he explained, "management could keep abreast of complaints and rumors circulating in the various departments without creating a bond among the participants or inadvertently developing leaders."
Worried emails, captive meetings
Not long after the start of the roundtable meetings, production workers received an email from CEO Mike Woliansky. It started off with a bubbly "Hey Team!," thanked us for a productive 2019, and wished us all a happy new year — before dropping a bomb:
"Recently, one of your team members let us know that the United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been reaching out to No Evil Foods employees and talking about unionization and an upcoming election."
"... I want to make sure everyone understands our position on unionization. While we agree that unions have done a lot of great things for American workers, we don't think that a union would be the best choice for our team at this time. As a start-up, No Evil Foods has benefited from the flexibility of being able to make changes – we're still figuring out what's best for everyone, and I believe that everyone at NEF is working hard to continually improve our workplace. Health Insurance Benefits, PTO for hourly team members, paid holidays, weekly team meals — these are all things we have added in the last 12 months. We are focused on supporting you, listening to your ideas, and continually improving No Evil Foods and your work life here. I don't believe you have to pay an outside organization to speak on your behalf — we already believe that all of your voices are powerful.
I'm concerned, that a union would limit our ability to be flexible. More than that, I'm worried that we won't be able to build the type of team I know we all want to build if we involve a third party. I am afraid that bringing in a union will create an adversarial relationship, and a dynamic that does not give our growing company the time and ability to grow, improve, and find what works best for all of us. While the decision to unionize is ultimately yours, I truly believe that our success lies in us acting as one team working toward one goal. I cannot see how a union would help us to achieve that goal."
Notice how the union is portrayed — as an "outside organization" and "third party" necessarily in an "adversarial relationship" with management. Faced with his workers organizing, Woliansky is "concerned," "worried," "afraid." As Levitt said of employer letters warning workers against unionizing, "every word was carefully planned. Terms describing the union always carried derogatory and threatening connotations."
Shortly after this email arrived, the mandatory anti-union meetings started — one of the most effective tools in a union buster's playbook. There were seven meetings in total. The first was conducted by the CEO and brought the first and second shift together in the same room. The six meetings after that were split up by shift and led by people we saw every day — the plant manager, the vice president of manufacturing, the co-founders. Levitt would have approved. As he wrote, "My anti-union message would turn on portraying the union as a power-hungry interloper, and nobody was going to buy it coming from the company's hired gun. No, the words and the warnings would have to come from the people they worked with every day down in the pits, from the people they counted on for that good review and that weekly paycheck."
While the anti-union meetings were led by company insiders, they were guided by legal counsel from Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, a national employment law firm. Although the firm's website claims they don't want to be known as "union busters," it notes that they specialize in "union avoidance campaigns" and union "decertification" efforts, and offers employers advice on building and fostering "the kind of workplace environment in which a union is irrelevant."
Slandering the union
Levitt described how he led hours of seminars, rallies, and one-on-one meetings aimed at teaching workplace supervisors to despise and fear the union.
"I persuaded them that a union organizing drive was a personal attack on them, a referendum on their leadership skills, and an attempt to humiliate them," he wrote. "I was friendly, even jovial at times, but always unforgiving as I compelled each supervisor to feel he was somehow to blame for the union push and consequently obliged to defeat it. Like any hostages, most supervisors could not resist for long. They soon came to see the fight through the eyes of their captor and went to work wringing union sympathies out of their workers."
The rhetoric we heard from supervisors at No Evil Foods' captive anti-union meetings was similarly aimed at making us hate labor unions.
One theme we heard repeatedly from our bosses is that a union is just another money-grubbing company that takes from workers without giving back — even though union members earn more and have better benefits than their non-union counterparts.
"Just like No Evil, [the union] is a business — that's the beginning and the end of it," claimed the company's vice president of manufacturing at one of the two captive meetings he led. "It's a business. You can call it this, call it that, it is a business, period, end of sentence. They're in the business of negotiating labor contracts. It is a business."
The person who at the time served as the plant manager echoed that message at the mandatory meeting she conducted. "With most businesses, you provide a service or a product," she said. "We make plant meat, we sell plant meat, that's how we make our money. Unions don't make a product, they don't provide a guaranteed service. With unions, they make their money off of dues. That's it."
In his book, Levitt describes delivering a strikingly similar message to workers at an anti-union meeting he led. "A business gets money from its customers," he recounts saying. "[It] uses the money to pay workers, buy more equipment, expand the business. By federal law a union can get money from only one place, the membership. Everyone knows that unions charge dues: that's how they pay that organizer and that attorney back in West Virginia."
Another strategy used by supervisors at No Evil Foods that echoes the Levitt playbook: Frighten workers about the union levying fines against members for arcane reasons. The manufacturing VP spent nearly an entire presentation going over the union constitution, repeatedly warning that it was complex — "purposely written that way," he charged — and claimed that if we didn't fully understand it we could be fined or taken to court by the union. Levitt said that he would strike "a tone of sympathy" and ask workers if they were aware that unions can levy fines on their members. But No Evil Foods' vice president of manufacturing did not explain that unions typically levy monetary fines only in cases where members cross a picket line during a lawfully called strike.
Management's efforts to slander the union didn't stop there. In one of the speeches he gave to both the morning crew and the night crew, the vice president also made sure to mention Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters leader who got involved with organized crime and after serving time in prison disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975, presumed to have been murdered. And when anti-union propaganda posters began to decorate the No Evil Foods warehouse, one of them included a snippet of a story about a UFCW leader embezzling money and asked in big letters, "Is this the union YOU want to join?" But the snippet excluded the part of the story where the union itself had sniffed out the corruption and took out its own trash.
This mirrors the Levitt playbook. "Whenever I mentioned the union people, I was sure to note that they came from far away in the big city," he wrote. "Big cities mean bad guys, crime, sleaze, big money. Mafia."
Scare tactics over dues
Yet another strategy No Evil Foods management used that Levitt promoted was to present collective bargaining "as a protracted, risky, and possibly futile process and warned employees that 'unions have been known to trade away whatever it takes' to win costly little plums for themselves," as he wrote.
In one of his mandatory anti-union meetings, company CEO Woliansky told workers: "In bargaining, you might end up with more than you already have. You might end up with the same as what you have now, but you might be paying union dues. Or you might end up with less than you currently have. You take a huge risk."
Levitt also liked to write letters to workers in a question-and-answer format that he said "walked a tightrope over the realm of unlawful." He noted that if he had written "bargaining starts from scratch" the letter would have been illegal and the union could have filed an unfair labor practice complaint. "That's because those exact words have been tested in the courts and determined to be against the laws that govern representation elections," he wrote. "So, big deal, I picked other words. But I said the same thing. I wrote, 'Nothing is automatic in a union contract. Everything is subject to bargaining.' It is also illegal for a company to refuse to bargain with a union that has been duly elected by the workers, so I didn't say the company would refuse. I just let the readers know that the company would make it very hard on the union to win anything. I wrote: 'We would not be obliged to agree to anything or to make any concessions.'"
Compare that to the wording of an anti-union propaganda flyer presented in a question-and-answer format and left around No Evil Foods for workers to see:
Q: Does bargaining really start at zero?
A: NO — after all, we do intend to pay you! We're extremely proud of the wages and benefits we're currently able to provide — we'd never want to take anything away. But you have to understand the law, and the law says that there are no guarantees in collective bargaining, and there is no requirement that bargaining would start with your current wages and benefits and just go up from there."
Q: Okay, but that just means the company doesn't HAVE to start where we currently are. But if it wanted to, it could.
A: Again, we truly don't want to take anything away from you. But we don't know what would happen in collective bargaining — all we know is that there would be a LOT on the table. Not just wages and benefits — many job conditions are classified as 'mandatory subjects of bargaining'. Typical contracts will also include provisions about strikes and lockouts, mandatory overtime, certain policies (like drug testing and attendance), grievance and arbitration procedures, provisions about stewards, management rights — it's a long list. And once it's in a contract, No Evil Foods supervisors will have to follow the contract exactly — it would be illegal for us to make any changes or exceptions to whatever's in the agreement (for better or worse). For a startup that's been defined by radical change, the idea of having everything in stone is challenging, and we would have to balance EVERYTHING to make sure we remain competitive and productive, including whether or not our current wages and benefits would still make sense in light of other contract obligations. We WILL have to consider what makes economic sense. Bargaining is a risk — for you, and for No Evil Foods."
As the manufacturing VP told us at one of his captive meetings, "This is a very sizable financial decision you're going to make on the same level as buying a house, buying a car, getting a loan of some sort, because it affects your finances for the next couple of years at least." And at one of her captive meetings, the former plant manager claimed that the union makes it hard to stop paying dues.
"This reminds me of a really shitty gym membership that you just want to get out of," she said. "The stipulations on it are insane."
The emphasis on dues worked as a powerful scare tactic in conjunction with the supposed possibility that we would pay them and get nothing in return.
'Pervert the intent'
In February, a second anti-union email was sent to the workers, and this time it was signed by both co-founders. There was no bubbly "Hey Team!" in the greeting line, an indication of how hostile the work climate had become in less than a month. Here's how the email started:
"This afternoon, No Evil Foods was required by law to submit to the National Labor Relations Board a list of names, personal cell phone numbers, home telephone numbers, personal email addresses, and home addresses of all its employees eligible to vote in the upcoming election. The law also requires us to provide this information directly to the UFCW. No Evil Foods values your privacy and would not normally give employees' home addresses, personal cell phones, or other personal information to anyone. However, we are required by law to give this information to the Board and to the Union. We regret any inconvenience or annoyance that any invasion of your privacy by the union may cause."
The email warns that the union may "mass mail and email" materials to the homes of workers, or may even show up there. "Employees have informed their managers about their concerns about strangers coming to their homes," the email said. "These strangers are paid union organizers and employees of other companies, and they can be aggressive at times. There is nothing No Evil Foods can do about these unwanted visits."
This is yet another strategy discussed by Levitt in his book, which noted that once a union voting unit is established and the election date is set, federal labor law requires the employer to provide the union with the names and home address of all eligible employees in order to give organizers easier access to the employees.
"But a good union buster knows how to pervert the intent," Levitt wrote. "I sent a letter to every employee on the list before releasing their names to the union. In the letter, which was signed by company management, I informed employees that we had given out personal information on them to the union as required by law and assured them that we would never have given out such information otherwise. The letter went on to warn the workers to expect harassing phone calls and visits from union officials at their homes. Management apologized, of course, for the trouble the union drive was causing the good workers."
"The union must be thought of — and publicized as — devious," he wrote. "Every move must be interpreted as sneaky, every motive treated as suspect."
With the union election scheduled for Feb. 13, the "Vote No" message became increasingly prominent on buttons worn by workers and stickers placed on worker's lockers and elsewhere across the facility, including glass window of the co-founders' shared office. It was a strategy that had been perfected by Levitt decades prior.
"Ten days before the election I launched the 'Vote No' saturation carnival," he wrote. "I had 'Vote No' hats, buttons, and T-shirts printed up. Supervisors and foremen were ordered to wear their 'Vote No' vestments every day and to give away T-shirts and trinkets to any workers who asked for them. Almost everyone ended up wearing something; whether it was out of fear or conviction didn't matter. What mattered was the 'Vote No' message was everywhere. It hung on the walls, it danced atop people's heads, it rode upon their chests. A jolly atmosphere reigned on the shop floor during the last week and a half. It seemed impossible that anyone would feel free to talk against management in that chummy environment. It seemed impossible that union proponents would have any momentum or any support or any hope left."
Pandemic sparks solidarity
After multiple captive anti-union meetings and weeks of being immersed in anti-union propaganda and surrounded by "Vote No" buttons and stickers, it was hard to imagine a union victory.
Behind the scenes, we weighed our yes and no votes, but on the other side Levitt's strategies encouraged similar calculations: "We kept charts on every employee, identifying each with one of five marks: a plus sign in a circle if he was staunchly anti-union; a plain plus sign if he leaned towards management; a minus sign in a circle for a strong union supporter; a simple minus sign in a circle if he was pro-union; a question mark for unknowns. Each time we interviewed the worker's foreman, we updated the chart. We also kept notes on whatever anecdotal tidbits our informant proffered, from statements the worker had made about the company or union to details of his finances or sex life."
We thought it would be a close election, but we were way off: Our co-workers overwhelmingly voted against unionizing by a 3 to 1 margin. The total score was
13 15 for, 43 against.
It was devastating — and at first the loss was difficult to comprehend.
Why would they vote against the union, I wondered. But the real question was why they would vote for it after everything they had endured. Over the course of nearly two months, the union had been presented as a corrupt, divisive entity that would siphon dues while guaranteeing nothing. And who could truly understand the supposedly vast complexities of the union constitution? Who would want to risk being sued, and possibly fined, by the big scary greedy union?
"Folks on both sides have asked smart questions and made good points," read the post-election email from CEO Woliansky. "Your choice regarding union representation has been made, and now it's time to move on together. ... We all have great ideas on how to make No Evil Foods better, and we all have to work together if we're going to succeed."
The email said nothing about new ways to empower No Evil employees. Instead, it said simply that "the past is behind us."
Just a month after the election, the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the country. With a confined production facility and growing fears of infection spreading, management rolled out a response plan that immediately demonstrated the importance of having a union. But more than that, it showed that we didn't need a union to challenge management: We just needed solidarity, and management practically handed it to us with their atrocious reaction.
Giving us 24 hours to decide, they offered us a choice to stay with the company and receive hazard pay if we maintained 90 days of spotless attendance, or to leave — either with the option to return and no severance pay, or no option to return, severance pay, and our signature on a nondisclosure agreement and another document that forfeited our right to sue the company for any potential violations of the National Labor Relations Act, Americans with Disability Act, and the Civil Rights Act.
Frustrated with the union's loss and scared by the oncoming pandemic, many workers chose to take the money and run. But those of us who stayed organized a petition for immediate hazard pay without stipulation, and that petition got the signature of a majority of workers — both pro- and anti-union.
But before we could bring it to management, I was pulled off the production floor by the head of human resources and interrogated. Management had played a good game up until this point, but this was a misstep that would later cost the company tens of thousands of dollars. I was asked about the petition and whether it was related to the union drive. I knew I had a majority of the workers behind me this time, so I confessed to everything. I wanted management to know that we weren't powerless, even without official recognition of a union.
The next day, before we could hand in the petition, management rolled out hazard pay. They never once acknowledged the petition.
Inoculate against lies
Less than a month after helping organize the hazard pay petition, I was fired by No Evil Foods for "performance issues" and an alleged social distancing violation. Another petition organizer was fired for a supposed dress code violation.
We filed wrongful termination charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which conducted an investigation and found merit to our claims that No Evil Foods was in the wrong. As Vice News reported last September, the NLRB found that the company "violated the law" by firing workers because they "assisted a union" and "circulat[ed] a petition seeking hazard pay ... for the purposes of mutual aid and protection."
The company was forced to shell out over $40,000 in total in back and front pay for me and the other fired organizer.
No Evil Foods' response to workers' organizing was typical — but it didn't have to be. As Levitt wrote, "Companies wishing to save money and avoid the antagonism generated during a union representation election campaign can answer 'Yes' and agree to recognize the union by checking the authorization cards in the presence of a neutral witness, thereby acknowledging that the union represents the majority of workers," Levitt writes. "It's very simple, it's very cheap, and it's almost never done. Why? Because the bosses don't want to negotiate with their workers, that's why."
No Evil Foods' reaction to both the union drive and COVID-19 proved Levitt correct. Whether through a union or through worker-led collective action, the company wasn't interested in negotiating with workers. It was willing to bust a union and fire workers to maintain control.
After publishing his book, Levitt conducted a handful of speeches and interviews. During one of those speeches, Levitt likened workers coming to understand the tactics they will face to being inoculated with a protective vaccine. "When inoculation is put in force with employees and they see it come true, it creates a feeling of rage — 'How can the company be doing something like that?' — and that rage translates to a solidarity which beat me ... the most effective weapon you have to beat the union buster is exposure."
In a 1996 interview with the Allied Pilots Association, Levitt emphasized the importance of an offensive approach. "Don't wait to play defense, which is exactly what they would like you to do," he said. "Take an offensive posture and put your position out not only in front of membership [or potential membership], but in front of the public."
Levitt summed up his overall advice on how to win a union campaign: "[Don't] lose sight. You are under attack. War has been declared against your union. Stay focused on what the true and real issues are. You have to maintain your unity. You keep that together, especially that unity, and there isn't a union buster out there that can beat you."
The fact that there was nothing original about No Evil's response to organizing efforts by their workers is exactly the point. The workplace can be a massive corporation or a small one. It can be led by "cool" bosses or horrible and abusive ones. The anti-union talking points and tactics remain the same.
What happened to us has been done before — and will happen again to others. Only through exposing these strategies, and preparing workers for what they ought to expect from management when they begin unionizing, can we start beating the busters and getting more union victories.