One day last fall, employees of Iron Mountain, a Boston-based records management company, were subjected to what union organizers like to call a captive audience meeting.
Employers hold these anti-union meetings once they've gotten wind of an organizing campaign in their midst. Whether the meeting is led by in-house managers or outside consultants, the gist is usually the same: Joining a union is totally your call. But it's a really bad idea, and we're disappointed it's come to this.
The spiel at an Iron Mountain facility near Atlanta, where the Teamsters were trying to organize truck drivers, wasn't unlike the anti-union speeches commonly delivered at other companies. What made this meeting different was that a pro-union worker in attendance was surreptitiously recording it.
"We have the right to educate you," the Iron Mountain manager lectured his employees. "And we're going to exercise that right."
Ben Speight, a Teamsters organizer in Atlanta, later posted the audio to SoundCloud, and it was picked up by Gawker, Salon, Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post, among other outlets. Since then, Speight has obtained a litany of similar recordings from meetings purportedly held at more recognizable companies, including Coca-Cola, Staples and FedEx.
Those recordings are posted below, along with commentary from the workers who helped make them possible. The workers asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.
Look for more of these in the future. The recordings have been made possible by the ubiquity of smartphones, Speight told HuffPost -- a trend that management is sure to take note of.
"Most people will work their whole lives and never sit through one of these meetings," Speight said.
Indeed, even most union workers will never sit through a captive audience meeting, Speight said, since they generally become members of unions by taking jobs at already-unionized workplaces. These meetings tend to happen in the midst of ongoing and often heated organizing campaigns that employers would very much like to scuttle.
The Teamsters local had previously used such recordings primarily for what Speight calls "inoculation" -- to give closeted pro-union workers a taste of the pressure they can expect once their organizing becomes known. But now Speight is using the recordings in part to embarrass the companies for what he calls their "relentless pressure and misinformation and half-truths."
"The atmosphere is coercive by nature," Speight said.
As noted in their statements below, the companies in question see things differently. What unions view as captive audience meetings are often framed by employers as nothing more than helpful "information" sessions. And even though unions aren't given the same platform in the workplace, it's perfectly legal under U.S labor law for companies to require workers to attend such meetings, so long as their language isn't overtly coercive, threatening or retaliatory.
Companies wouldn't hold the meetings if they weren't effective. A 2009 study authored by Cornell labor expert Kate Bronfenbrenner and published by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers were significantly more likely to vote against the union in cases where employers held captive audience meetings.
This meeting was recorded at a Coca-Cola sales and distribution center in Atlanta. At the outset, a representative for management calls the meeting "an information session" meant to help workers understand what unionizing would mean for them.
"We come in and we just inform you all, and give you facts and give you some resources about how to be educated," the woman explains.
Of course, those resources turn out to reflect rather poorly on unions:
"When a union comes in [...] they're seeking money from employees."
"When a third party comes in, things change."
According to internal Coca-Cola surveys, the woman asserts, "employees that are on a non-union facility are much more engaged and happier."
A man helping to lead the meeting opines, "They may claim they want to represent you, and give you a voice in the workplace, but at least my experience is at the end of the day it's all about the money."
All that said, he's careful to add, it's "your choice, your decision."
The workers are told over and over again that they are their own best advocates.
At a couple of points in the recording, the workers decide to challenge their lecturers. When the man says that all unions want is money, one worker asks him how much he is being paid to hold the information session.
"How much is your salary for this meeting, as far as you talking about unions and stuff like that?"
"My salary doesn't matter," the man replies. "This is my job. I work for Coke just like you do."
After being warned about the costs of union representation, the worker responds, "I wouldn't mind paying for representation, because I don't feel like anyone is representing me [now]."
"Why would people go seek a third party?" one worker asks. "You get what I'm saying? There has to be a problem."
"You put so much emphasis on discouraging people about the union," another worker says. "Why wouldn't you put the same emphasis on finding out what problems the employees have and try to make them better?"
The worker who made the recording told The Huffington Post he supports the union because "pay is not matching the labor" at the facility.
"Most guys believe that if I give a fair day's work I should get a fair day's pay," he said.
As for why he decided to make the recording, "I kind of wanted the world to see what was actually going on," he said. "People see the commercials and the pretty red trucks, but they never know what's going on on the inside."
Reached for comment on the recordings, Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling said in an email that the company "respects our associates' rights to freely join, or not join, unions."
"Whenever unions seek to organize currently unrepresented associates, we provide our associates with facts and data necessary to make an informed decision about seeking or rejecting representation," Stribling said. "That was the purpose of the recent meetings at our South Metro distribution center in Atlanta. We believe it is our obligation to our associates to ensure they have all relevant information to make the right decisions for themselves and their families."
These Staples meetings were held at one of the company's distribution centers in Atlanta. As is common in such meetings, one of the managers leading it starts by noting that anyone in the room is free to unionize.
"The choice on whether to have a union or not is yours," he says.
And yet he paints unionization as an awful idea:
"Unions are divisive in the workplace."
"Unions come between employers and employees."
"Unions can pit associates against one another."
"Unions are a business that needs your money. Don't be fooled: Unions are first and foremost a business."
But he later adds, "I'm trying to give you an objective opinion."
A woman helping to lead the meeting acknowledges the discontent among the Staples workers -- after all, union campaigns don't spring from nowhere -- but says there's little that anyone can do about it. She says Staples is being squeezed by the economy and the general business climate, as well as by Obamacare.
"There's stuff that a lot of people are unhappy with [that] the company is doing," she says. "But guess what? The bottom line is we need to stay competitive. We're not making the money we need to make. It's not the same climate out there."
(Faced with growing online competition, Staples announced that it would close 140 stores this year amid lagging sales. The company did, however, beat analysts' predictions with an $82 million profit last quarter.)
After being told that unionizing could be expensive, one worker shoots back: "We get treated like dirt now. So, like, what's the point? Who cares?"
A worker who made one of the recordings told HuffPost he supports the union efforts because of what he described as low pay and a lack of job security at the facility.
"They tried to tell us we don't need a union and a third party to come in to negotiate," the worker said. "They said 'y'all could end up losing money, the union people are only here to make money, they won't want to sell office supplies, they go on lavish vacations.' All that stuff."
He added, "We pushed back on them."
According to the worker, the presentation included an obviously dated video about what workers need to think about when going into a union election. (The video can be heard at the start of the second recording. Sample dialogue: "Signing a union authorization card would be like signing a blank check!") Judging from the actors' clothes and the cars they drove, the worker said, he estimated the video was from the 1970s.
"They had old hairdos, and they talked about stuff that's probably not even happening anymore," the worker said. "It was on a [VHS] cassette tape -- not even a DVD."
A Staples spokeswoman didn't respond to multiple requests for comment on the recordings.
The Teamsters have long sought to organize FedEx Freight facilities, and managers at the shipping giant are quite clear about the company's feelings toward the union. In two recordings uploaded by Speight -- one purportedly made this July, the other circa 2009 -- the supervisors are refreshingly candid about how they will resist the union effort with everything they can muster.
"We are opposed to having a union," one man lectures. "We will fight the Teamsters by every legal means available. We ask that you please do not sign a union card."
"It is no secret the Teamsters' first priority is to collect employee dues ... They will do anything to get those dues," he goes on. "The biggest reason we oppose the Teamsters is they have no interest in our success."
In dealing with organizing campaigns, FedEx likes to make note of America's falling union density rate, which has now dipped to less than 7 percent in the private sector, close to its historic low in the post-war years. In the more recent recording, FedEx workers are urged to visit the site fedexfreightworkplace.com, which notes in bold that "unionization is an option that fewer individuals are choosing today." (Of course, labor advocates would argue that the falling density rate is due at least in part to these aggressive anti-union campaigns.)
At one point, the company representative in the same recording mocks the Teamsters for their declining membership rolls.
"The Teamsters are literally a bunch of losers," he says.
The speaker in the other recording is just as direct.
"We do not want a union at FedEx Freight, not under any circumstances. Okay?" he says. "This company by any legal means necessary will fight that. And everybody in this room and everybody who works for this organization needs to understand that. We don't support it. We don't think it fits with our business model. We don't think it's good for you or your families."
In an interview, the Teamsters supporter who made the earlier recording said he was stunned by what he heard in the lecture.
"When you sit in these meetings, it's unbelievable -- you just say to yourself, 'Somebody else has to hear this,'" the worker said. "This stuff is too good."
He said he's a supporter of the Teamsters' organizing efforts at FedEx.
"I think it's about time we had a voice," he said.
When asked about the audio, FedEx spokeswoman Melissa Charbonneau said in an email that the company would not address recordings "whose origin is unclear and where no one is identified."
She added, "FedEx Freight employees have consistently rejected third party representation, and we prefer to work directly with our people to provide and maintain a positive work environment."