Employees who try to unionize their workplace can usually expect what is called a “captive audience” meeting, where management gives their “perspective” on the unionization drive. Because management can force workers to attend these meetings, it is often an effective tool if the leadership of a workplace is looking to dispel interest in building a union.
Since a union in the workplace leads to both higher wages and better benefits — as well as erodes management’s authority — few bosses remain neutral during a union fight. It is not uncommon to find them returning to tactics that workers describe as intimidating or coercive. This is even true in workplaces that espouse “progressive” or left-wing principles, where rhetoric and politics mean little when money and power are on the line.
This is what several employees allege happened when they tried to unionize at No Evil Foods — a large vegan foods brand founded in 2014 and available at more than 5,500 retail locations, including Whole Foods. No Evil Foods sought to appeal to social justice activists by using names like El Zapatista or Comrade Chuck for their products, but were firm in their opposition to a union.
Since they appeal to the tradition of the militant workers’ movement and tout themselves as being a pro-worker company, many people were surprised when audio surfaced in May of management using what workers called intimidation tactics in their captive audience meeting to undermine a union organizing drive at their Weaverville, North Carolina plant.
“I sincerely believe that right now a union would be a terrible thing for you and for No Evil Foods,” said Mike Woliansky, the CEO of No Evil Foods. He went on to say that the union would hurt the company and not give workers a voice. Woliansky gave the impression that union cards were scary legal documents that could lead to unintended ramifications for the workers signing them. He added that the union in question — the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW — has a history of high paid executives, scandal and supporting slaughterhouses.
“You could get more than you currently have,” Woliansky said, seemingly trying to incite anxiety over the prospect of a union. “You could get the same thing you currently have. You could get less than you currently have. I don’t think you need a union voice here.”
The organizing employees at No Evil Food eventually lost their union election 43-15 on Feb. 13, but their story provides many lessons on the challenges of unionizing in a liberal workplace and how workers can try to overcome them.
Driving for a voice in a progressive workplace
Despite Woliansky’s statements, many of the employees believed that a union intervention was necessary to address working conditions, compensation and what kind of say they have in the workplace.
“The union was brought up by past employees who originally were wanting higher wages, healthcare and a voice within the company,” said a former employee who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Workers called out their supervisors for micromanagement, a double standard between management and rank-and-file employees on COVID-19 prevention measures, shifting schedules, turnover and other major issues. During the crisis, workers say that it was impossible to adequately follow social distancing protocols and still meet the production goals that workers were being held to.
“The primary workplace issue I noticed involved poor management, almost always stemming from a dead-set focus on the bottom line,” said Jon Reynolds, a production employee who worked at No Evil Foods from October 2019 to May 1. “For most of my employment, even after the union drive, we were using skiing goggles for protective eyewear and gloves with holes. We worked with a chemical which is extremely toxic and should never get on your skin, yet almost everyone who worked in the [dishwashing space] ended up getting it on them.”
Management countered that they follow current regulations on good manufacturing practices, which are intended to ensure customer and staff safety, when we reached out to them for comment.
The “captive audience” meetings were one of the primary ways that workers say No Evil Foods undermined the strength of the unionization effort. The employees argue that those meetings instilled fear as a way of collapsing organizing efforts, often by encouraging confusion. By presenting a unionized workplace as a total unknown, then offering examples of what could happen, it created a great deal of uncertainty that made a “no vote” more attractive.
“They essentially scared and confused everyone. Fears about dues, about the union suing us, about sexual harassment running rampant, about union corruption, about pay, about the investors,” Reynolds said, noting that there was more support for the union before these tactics were used by management in the required “captive audience” meetings.
“These meetings were without a doubt, the most aggressive, confrontational and ridiculous propaganda presentations I have ever been subjected to on such a personal level,” said Meagan Sullivan, a former No Evil Foods employee who started in December and left in June because she was becoming “physically sick with anxiety” each day before starting her shift. “Between their blatant misinformation about the UFCW, unions in general, and hyperbolic claims about how sexual harassers will be impossible to fire, it was incredibly difficult to not be constantly on the defensive during these meetings. They were mandatory, even for an employee who was experiencing panic attacks as a result of them.”
“We responded to their flyers and mudslinging, when we should have stuck to the issues that mattered to people.”
While the unionizing employees were working with the support of UFCW Local 1208, which also represents workers at Smithfield Foods, the workers themselves were building support for the campaign through relationships. This was centered on trying to correct misinformation the workers allege was coming from management in these meetings.
“I held meetings at my home and invited people over to eat, drink, chill out and casually talk about the union while building solidarity,” said Reynolds, who spent their time trying to counter fear messaging that management had offered about unions protecting predators and abusers in the workplace. “This was incredibly useful and helped foster a tight-knit group of people who would go on and vote for the union, even if we ended up being a minority. We were resilient to the propaganda and did our best to try to talk to others and sway them.” Despite their best efforts, Reynolds said that many who were initially supportive of forming a union were slowly swayed to vote against it by the company.
One of the difficulties of unionizing low-wage workplaces is that turnover is often incredibly high. People will move on quickly and do not often identify strongly with their job. This was the case at No Evil Foods, particularly when workers say they started to increase working hours in 2019. This creates a difficult situation since the workers who initiate the organizing drive may not still be employed by the time the bureaucratic National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, process comes to a head. This was part of the problem at No Evil Foods, as many of the employees who started the drive were forced to move on by the time the vote was held.
When No Evil Foods started shifting people’s schedules, this made it hard to maintain the same employees since people often take a particular job because they are able to make it work with their own obligations. Whether intentional or not on management’s part, this often squashes organizing by forcing out the employees who had started the organizing drive.
According to an anonymous former employee, “The early attempts at unionizing were shut down with a forced schedule change, which changed our work week from Monday-Thursday to Monday-Friday — with one forced Saturday overtime shift a month. One-third of the crew left during this time.” After new people were hired, the remaining unionizing staff would approach them about the issues and get them involved in the union. Interest in unionization began to pick up steam again, but it was an uphill battle with a workforce in flux.
Workers who are organizing often try to address this issue by sticking with their workplace for the long-haul in advance of the unionization effort, but also by refusing to let the unionization process be led by only a small inner circle. This was why the staff at No Evil Foods worked to constantly involve new employees in the unionization effort as they came in.
It is also why some campaigns at low-wage workplaces with high turnover, such as the Burgerville Workers Union, has had success over long periods of time. At Burgerville, the union became an established presence even in workplaces where a union election has not taken place yet, ensuring workers would get involved in shop-floor organizing.
While No Evil Foods workers lost their union election, many of the employees continued to organize around their issues using a solidarity union model, as has been done in many other workplaces. This approach to unionization focuses more on taking action in the workplace to push for changes rather than only relying on federally regulated procedures, which many people see as weighted in the direction of the boss. These actions could be anything from petitions to wearing pro-union buttons to strikes and civil disobedience.
Solidarity unionism can win workplace victories like raises or safety improvements, reorient the rest of the workers to the union and it can counter the messaging from the boss about the union’s intention. By continuing to take action, this type of organizing can also build up a base of support to launch another election in the future.
After the union lost the election, the pandemic hit and management offered a pay differential, but it had a series of caveats, including 90 days of perfect attendance. The organizing workers were outraged by this, and began a workplace petition for a $1.50 raise without exception. After the majority of employees signed, management offered a total $2.25 “hazard pay” differential. Management has pointed out that this differential, which they are calling “hero pay,” has continued indefinitely for the employees while many companies have ended it as reopening proceeds. After the employees saw the success they had, they planned for more petitions. Reynolds alleges that the threat of petitions and the public backlash to the company’s anti-union tactics raised the stakes for the employees who were fighting for change on the job. It was then that several workers who had signed the petition and had voted in favor of the union were fired.
“In late April, they started firing people who had the most legible signatures on the petition,” Reynolds said. “I was fired for allegedly not taking social distancing seriously, even as it remains impossible to always social distance and enforcement is sporadic and random. Someone else was fired for a dress code violation. Someone else was fired for having a wallet in their pocket. It was retaliation against organizers and against anyone who legibly signed the first petition for hazard pay.”
Firing employees for unionizing or taking workplace action is illegal, though it is surprisingly common and one of the primary reasons that unions file Unfair Labor Practice, or ULP, complaints with the NLRB.
No Evil Foods worker Cortne Roche has two open ULPs over these actions (and one that is now closed). The charges in these complaints include discharging workers for concerted activities, intimidation of organizing workers and coercive action.
Roche says she was fired for a reason no other employee was fired for — a supposed dress code violation that was allegedly selectively enforced. “This [was] a mere [three] weeks after being a known purveyor of a petition for hazard pay, making pro-worker, pro-union posts on my social media, and being a known supporter of the union,” she said. “It’s not rocket science. They say a few of us were not going to shut up about problems we saw and how to solve them through concerted activity. That hurts the dynamic of power and control all companies enjoy when they have an unorganized labor force, so they fired us.”
No Evil Foods disputes that any worker was fired for concerted activity and says that they respect the employees’ right to organize.
“No Evil Foods absolutely did not terminate any employees in response to union-related or other protected activities,” said Charlie Stone, a spokesperson for the company. “To protect the privacy of any former employee, we cannot discuss the numerous and various documented violations of company policy that would lead to dismissal.”
The firing of organizing employees is so common that many unions prepare for it to happen during an organizing drive, and will inoculate workers to management’s threats by telling them in advance. ULPs and public accountability can be effective counter-measures to the firing of workers, and employees can even build campaigns specifically around a fired employee. Marches on the boss, public petitions, rallies, strikes and other workplace actions can then be taken to get the worker rehired, and this can further animate the employees to get more involved in the unionization attempt.
A common tactic management uses to squash workplace organizing is to offer small improvements, like raises or the ability to air grievances. It is not uncommon to see workers get a raise directly after they vote down a union, or even in advance of the election, as a way of showing that the union is not needed. No Evil Foods has gone one step further by presenting themselves as a genuinely left-wing company, which sends the message to employees that they care about their interests.
Management at No Evil Foods allegedly divided employees into groups so they could share their issues, which they said was simply a way of addressing problems in the workplace. Many organizers saw this as an attempt to actually divide workers, see who are the biggest union agitators, and break up attempts at collective action.
“At the time I believed management was doing this to help resolve any workplace issues that led to people contacting a union in the first place,” Sullivan said. “I’m now aware this is a common tactic used for the purpose of union busting — to determine who is leading the charge while addressing people in small groups — and can break solidarity among workers who are all frustrated over one particular issue(s).”
This dynamic gives workers the sense that they have a voice in decision making. But without a contract and an independent labor organization ensuring those rights, they are entirely up to the whims of management. This is why the organizing workers had decided to form a union in the first place, and organizers can make this point to their coworkers to counter the messaging coming from management.
Make them play by their rules
The idea of a progressive company pushing back on unionization despite their professed values is not new. There have been many other high profile examples in recent years. Non-profit workers, liberal media companies, political campaigners and even union staff people have all been part of a successful wave of unionization over the last few years. Despite the politics of the organizations they work for, they have argued that they still need a voice on the job to ensure an equitable workplace. In the case of No Evil Foods, the politics could simply have been a branding technique, since they saw a gold rush in the world of plant-based alternative meats and wanted to appeal to a progressive customer base.
This dynamic creates an opportunity for organizing employees to force their employers to live up to the values they publicly profess. When organizers went to the media, they forced No Evil Foods to respond and defend their image. This likely hurt their brand loyalty from the left-wing of their customer base, who called them to account over their seemingly leftist politics. The use of these political slogans is a strategy that workers can use to pressure the company to stop fighting the union since it gives organizers the opportunity to force management to live up to its public rhetoric.
The workers who worked to unionize have looked back on the campaign in an effort to extract lessons that can help other employees who are trying to unionize in similar situations.
“No one will deny that the pay and benefits at No Evil Foods are competitive for the area, but any of that is subject to change without it being solidified in a contract.”
“We got on the defensive when the company started its anti-union campaign,” Roche said reflecting on why she thinks the campaign lost and how the workers could have done it differently. “We responded to their flyers and mudslinging, when we should have stuck to the issues that mattered to people. We did not systematically survey our coworkers on the issues and change they wanted. We didn’t bring enough workers onto the organizing committee. Most importantly we did not boldly present our commitment to being pro-union through wearing shirts, pins or posting our faces on the walls with why we believed the union makes us strong.”
No Evil Foods has its own explanation for why the union lost in an election. “Five months ago, after hearing all sides of this issue and in a fair and free election, the employees by close to a 70 percent margin declined the union (commonly referred to as a meat packers union) as not the right choice for this vegan company,” said Stone, a company spokesperson. “The employees did this because the founders do the right thing, and the employees believe the union is not needed — they know their voices are heard and they trust the vegan founders, who provide a progressive culture, living wages, excellent benefits (including covering 100 percent of healthcare premiums), and a mission to provide consumers with plant-based options to improve their health, preserve the environment, and help end corporate cruelty to animals.”
The No Evil Foods workers trying to unionize were part of a new generation of workers who are looking toward unions as a solution to precarious, low-wage jobs. The lessons from this campaign can apply across industries, but especially to those companies that have a progressive image.
“This company will inevitably be huge,” Sullivan said. “They’re growing extremely fast and backed by the same venture capitalists that fund other large vegan brands like Impossible Foods. No one will deny that the pay and benefits at No Evil Foods are competitive for the area, but any of that is subject to change without it being solidified in a contract. These employees deserve a voice and job security.”
As the economy changes, the only way that employees can ensure that their concerns are taken seriously is through collective action. Without demonstrating their independent power, they will be beholden to their bosses’ decisions and the liberal politics management espouses in public will only go so far.