Early last year, the president of a small manufacturing company in Missouri received a cold call from a man who went by the name of Jack Black. Workers at the company, called Motor Appliance Corp., or MAC, had just asked to hold a union election. Jack Black specialized in “union avoidance.” He wanted to offer his services.
Jack Black’s firm has brought in millions of dollars over the years by providing employers with “persuaders,” or, to use unions’ less charitable term, “union busters” — consultants who try to convince workers not to organize. Persuader work is big business these days. The number of union elections in the U.S. has surged amid an organizing wave over the last two years. Employers are now paying upwards of $3,000 a day, plus expenses, for each persuader. Amazon alone dished out more than $14 million to consultants last year.
But more often the employer is a little-known firm like MAC, which produces electric motors and battery chargers. The consulting work at MAC ultimately led to employee resignations and a hearing before the NLRB that shed new light on the opaque world of persuaders. This story is based primarily on testimony from that hearing, which was obtained through a public records request.
“We are a small company,” MAC’s Ballman said. “I felt that we needed some help on something that we knew virtually nothing about. We needed to do things right.”
A reformed persuader once memorably wrote that “union busting” is a field “built on deceit.” Jack Black’s real name was Jim Teague. He had once done some work for the United Steelworkers before becoming a consultant-for-hire against unions.
Teague testified before the labor board that he went by a different name in his work to protect himself and his family, suggesting he had once been assaulted. But an alias could also make it harder for workers to poke around on Teague’s background. An anti-union firm that previously employed Teague had once sued him, alleging he embellished his resume and tried to poach the firm’s clients. (The case was settled.) The Teamsters had distributed flyers that accused Teague of being a “union buster” and exaggerating his union work.
As Jack Black, Teague secured a contract to defeat the union campaign at MAC, which involved only around a dozen workers. The company agreed to pay $375 per hour, with a $5,000 retainer upfront, to have an anti-union consultant on site, according to a copy of the contract obtained by HuffPost.
The contract laid bare the real purpose of persuader work, in almost militaristic terms. One of the primary goals: “Minimize the likelihood of future union encroachment.”
When they speak to workers, many persuaders cast themselves as neutral parties who can provide unbiased information about the unionization process. But the contract between Teague’s firm and MAC laid bare the real purpose of persuader work, in almost militaristic terms. One of the primary goals: “Minimize the likelihood of future union encroachment.”
The agreement assured consultants would carry out a “thorough assessment” to pinpoint what led to the organizing effort, and conduct “role-playing scenarios” with supervisors on how to interact with workers. It also promised a system of “captive audience meetings” — an industry term for speeches where consultants generally deliver anti-union talking points.
“A systematic, organized counter-campaign will be implemented to secure an election win,” the contract assured. “Time is of the essence in commencing work on behalf of the company. Any delay is injurious to the company’s chances.”
Teague himself would not be going to Missouri. He subcontracted the work out to a man who would also work under a pseudonym — one that complemented the name Jack Black.
Looking For Opportunity
The workers at MAC had been meeting with a union organizer at a Super 8 motel a couple of miles from the facility. They were thinking about joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or the IAM, which has more than 500,000 members, many of them at manufacturing companies like Boeing and Harley-Davidson. Another group of workers in a separate division at MAC were already represented by the Teamsters.
One MAC worker later testified before the labor board that she supported the union effort because of harassment in the workplace. “Every day it was something sexual, disgusting,” she said of a male co-worker. She said she brought her concerns to supervisors, human resources and the president. “I filed complaints with each one of them, and nothing [came] of it.” (Unless otherwise noted, quotes attributed to workers and consultants in this story come from the labor board hearing transcripts.)
A mere 6% of private-sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union today, down from a high of around 33% in the 1950s. There are plenty of reasons for the long and steady decline: The loss of union-represented manufacturing jobs; weak labor laws that make unionizing more difficult; and increasing resistance to collective bargaining from American employers, to name just a few.
Persuaders help employers craft a playbook against the union. They figure out who supports the union, who opposes it and who sits on the fence. They hold group and one-on-one meetings that sow doubt about what a union can accomplish.
But persuaders play an undeniable role in suppressing union membership. They help employers craft a playbook against the union. They figure out who supports the union, who opposes it and who sits on the fence. They hold group and one-on-one meetings that sow doubt about what a union can accomplish. Some push the boundaries of what’s legal and even step over them, according to labor board case files.
Teague had been in the “union avoidance” industry for more than a decade, according to Labor Department filings and court records. He had done some union organizing at one point, but his true résumé was the subject of debate. A spokesperson for the Steelworkers said Teague had once worked for the union as a “casual organizer” but not a full-time staffer. Teague and the union “mutually agreed” to part ways in 2006, the spokesperson said. At some point, Teague began popping up on the other side of union campaigns.
He went to work for one of the country’s leading anti-union consulting firms, the Labor Relations Institute, or LRI, and became its vice president of sales, junior only to the firm’s founder and president, according to court files. But in 2013, LRI sued Teague for alleged fraud, breach of contract, copyright infringement and unjust enrichment.
LRI claimed Teague had inflated his past work by saying he’d been the Steelworkers’ “director of corporate campaigns and strategic projects.” LRI also accused Teague of steering its clients to a separate firm he had created with an LRI consultant who the firm said had recently served jail time for tax evasion. In an ironic twist, LRI claimed it became aware of Teague’s alleged résumé distortions because of the Steelworkers, a union LRI had spent years undermining. Teague denied the central allegations and the case was settled.
The persuader world is an alphabet soup of similar-sounding limited liability companies. Teague created a firm called International Labor Relations Inc. The firm’s acronym, ILR, sounded a lot like LRI. Both were based out of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, area. Teague formed a separate firm, Sparta, as a subsidiary of ILR. Despite this complicated corporate structure, ILR/Sparta was nothing but a “one-man band,” Teague testified before the labor board. He referred to himself as “president, CEO, founder, janitor, and all in-between.”
Teague’s firm pulled in $2.8 million in 2014 alone, as he helped manufacturers, food distributors, retailers, car dealerships and other employers deal with unions, according to disclosures filed with the Labor Department, as required under the law. One of his most reliable clients was the powerful food multinational Sysco, which hired Teague’s firm through more than a half-dozen of its subsidiaries to deal with the Teamsters.
By his own account, Teague was more of a salesman than a consultant, handing the work off to others and splitting the fees. “I try to keep my focus on doing the cold calls,” he later testified. “That is what I do. Ninety-nine percent of my day is looking for more work, and looking for more opportunity out there.”
Reached by phone, Teague told HuffPost he does not do interviews. He declined to discuss his work as a persuader, or his contract with MAC, before saying he had a plane to catch. He did not respond to follow-up texts or emails.
“I’m not the right person to talk to,” he said of the MAC campaign. “I’ve never even been there.”
Not long after signing the contract with Teague, MAC’s president, Ballman, picked up Teague’s subcontractor at the St. Louis airport. The man said his name was Aleks Green. Green impressed Ballman with his backstory during the 45-minute ride to the facility.
“He was a butcher,” Ballman recounted before the labor board. “He had rose in [the] union ranks, became, I believe, a president of the union. So he knew the union side. And then he had gone to the other side, so he knew both sides of the equation. And he said his goal was to educate the people on the pros and cons of a union. And what a qualified guy to do that.”
When facing a union drive, employers often cede a surprising amount of authority to outside consultants. It sort of makes sense: Although they usually aren’t attorneys, the consultants are supposed to know labor law well enough to prevent managers from making illegal threats. Ballman would later say he gave Aleks Green “carte blanche” to handle the union campaign. He was putting a stranger in a position to run potentially combative meetings with his employees.
Green’s real name was Eric Grumbrecht. Like Teague, he said he used a pseudonym for his own protection. Grumbrecht had once worked as a union butcher in Pennsylvania. In 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about Grumbrecht’s plans to create a new union that would rival the United Food and Commercial Workers, which he accused of being “the laziest organizers on the planet.” Grumbrecht intended to organize a nonunion grocer where butchers earned less than union members at other stores.
After the Inquirer story ran, Grumbrecht was arrested for allegedly making terroristic threats against the president of the local UFCW union, a misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty and received four years of probation. (The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas said the case file is not open to the public.) Grumbrecht told the Inquirer at the time that the two had merely been trading insults, but the union president, Wendell Young IV, said in an interview that the alleged threats were serious enough that his union hired a security firm. (After a series of discussions, HuffPost and Grumbrecht could not agree on terms for an interview for this story. He declined to answer a list of questions sent before publication.)
The UFCW encountered Grumbrecht again about a decade later. According to Young, the union was in a campaign at the tortilla maker Mission Foods when a staffer saw Grumbrecht walking out of the plant. Workers said Grumbrecht was holding meetings inside. Disclosure forms show Mission Foods’ parent company hired Teague’s firm Sparta to deal with a union in 2016 and 2017. The company paid Sparta a total of $1.8 million, according to filings.
The union’s lawyers put together a bilingual flier at Mission Foods that called Grumbrecht a “union buster” and detailed past criminal charges. Young said Mission Foods became more reasonable at the bargaining table. “That helped the [workers] firm up with us, once they understood what was going on,” he said.
Around the time of the Mission Foods campaign, Grumbrecht was charged with aggravated stalking and violating an injunction to protect against domestic violence in Brevard County, Florida. According to court files, he was not supposed to contact a woman with whom he’d had a previous relationship but did so more than 300 times through texts and phone calls and “instilled a legitimate fear in [her].”
Grumbrecht was found guilty of a felony stalking charge. At the sentencing hearing, he acknowledged that some of the things he had said through phone calls and texts were “terrible.” “I have to take responsibility for that,” he said, according to court transcripts. But he added that those actions were only part of the man he was, saying he had helped homeless people and improved workers’ lives in Pennsylvania through his union activism.
“Their standard of living went up and their insurance costs went down [because of] a movement I started there,” he said.
Grumbrecht was released from prison in the summer of 2021, according to Florida records. About seven months later, he headed to MAC to deal with the union campaign.
‘An F-You Vote’
The first thing Grumbrecht told workers was not to trust what he said — not because he would lie, but because they should do their own research. He maintained that he was not against unions, and that his only goal was to provide “both sides of the situation,” as he later testified. “I know there are unions out there that are very good to their people and some that aren’t and it’s just that simple,” he said.
One worker testified in the labor board hearing that Grumbrecht “never said anything anti-union,” but others testified that he did. One said the consultant told him “the union was not going to keep up their end of the bargain.” Another alleged he said they could lose their First Amendment rights if they organized, and that the union could mandate drug tests for everyone, alleged statements she found ridiculous. That worker claimed the consultant told her in a one-on-one meeting in an office that her vote for the union would be “an F-you vote” against the company.
She said the whole dynamic made her uncomfortable.
“I was immediately intimidated,” she testified, “because this man whom I have never met, whose face is covered in a mask … he just closed the door behind me, and is now sitting between me and the only exit.”
Grumbrecht said he never closed the door in these meetings and that people were free to leave without repercussions. But numerous workers testified that he said the talks were required because they were on company time.
“Why is this mandatory? Why are these meetings mandatory when I’m never, like, mandated to go to the union meeting? I had only been to one union meeting and I was there for, like, three minutes.” – a MAC employee on the “captive audience” meetings
“Why is this mandatory?” one worker recalled asking one day. “Why are these meetings mandatory when I’m never, like, mandated to go to the union meeting? I had only been to one union meeting and I was there for, like, three minutes. [The organizer] told me a few things and I left.”
The meetings underscored what unions argue is a fundamental imbalance in U.S. labor law. Employers have almost unfettered access to their own workers to make the case against organizing, often through involuntary gatherings. But no worker has to listen to anything union organizers have to say. The union is relegated to optional off-site meetups, phone calls and house visits. The inequity in messaging leaves employers with a strong advantage, said Gordon Lafer, co-director of the labor center at the University of Oregon.
“This is the only source of information that some people get,” Lafer said. He added that the stress of the talks can make a workplace feel like “a political war zone.”
Some of the confabs grew contentious. A worker recalled a female colleague storming out of one in tears, so flustered she hit herself with the door as she swung it open. “She told them, ‘If you want to fire me, fire me, but I can’t do this,’” the worker testified before the labor board. “She said, ‘I’m not voting for [the] union, I’m not voting against [the] union. I’m so stressed out I can’t take this anymore.’”
A worker who opposed the union effort testified that she had “never seen a company of people that turned on each other so fast once this union became available like these people did here. And you could tell the alliances.”
One of the workers whom Grumbrecht spoke with one on one was Nick, whose last name HuffPost isn’t including for health privacy reasons. Nick worked as a punch press operator. He was perhaps the most outspoken union supporter, wearing six “vote yes” buttons on his work shirt. During his testimony before the labor board, Nick said he didn’t believe Green was who he claimed to be.
“I know what you’re doing here,” Nick said, according to his own account. “I know you’re a union buster.”
Two days later, Nick had a seizure at work and was taken to the emergency room. A company doctor later cleared him to return to work with “no specific physical limitations” but advised he not engage in “safety-sensitive activities.” His bosses told him they had to pull him off the punch press.
Nick loved working the machine and took the news hard. “In fact, I ended up crying a little,” he testified. They moved him over to the assembly department and agreed not to reduce his pay. What happened next would alter the union campaign.
The company fired Nick less than two weeks after he’d had his seizure. His superiors would say Nick was “loafing” and “pouting” about his reassignment, unwilling to learn his new duties, even though he’d had a solid work record over nearly four years, according to company officials’ testimony. They denied they fired him over his union activity.
Nick said he was blindsided and never received a reason for his termination. The company later acknowledged it gave him no warning.
“The only thing I can come up with … is that I was pro-union,” Nick testified. “That’s a guess.”
Union organizers lose their jobs all the time. Researchers estimate that employers are charged with retaliatory firings in nearly one-fifth of unionization efforts. But even when a worker and their union can prove the firing was discriminatory, the remedies are notoriously weak. Usually the employer just has to offer the worker reinstatement, with back pay. The labor board does not have the power to issues fines for breaking the law.
At MAC, Nick’s firing had immediate effects. The worker who had been training him in his new role was furious. “I asked [a supervisor] why and he didn’t give me a reason,” the worker testified. “I just, you know, kept asking, ‘Why? Why? Why?’” The worker told his boss he was quitting over Nick’s termination. His boss wished him well. He too had signed a union card.
That day, employees were called into another group meeting with the consultant, Grumbrecht. Two workers who opposed the union effort later testified that they asked Grumbrecht to call the meeting — one said she wanted him to address bullying; the other, who was Black, said he wanted him to address racism.
According to a video recording, Grumbrecht began the meeting with an ominous invitation: “I know previously some people had said if they get pulled into any other meetings that they were going to quit. Well, feel free right now — your bosses are here — to tender your resignation.” He then asked, “Any takers?”
“This is insane,” one worker said.
“No takers?” Grumbrecht asked.
“If you want a fucking resignation, here it is,” the worker said. She headed for the door and slammed it behind her.
“Anybody else?” Grumbrecht asked.
A second worker left her seat, too.
“I’m done,” she said. “Fuck all of you guys.”
“Anybody else?” Grumbrecht asked again.
Another worker pleaded to know where the company’s president was. “I’m not going to talk to you until Evan is out here.”
Grumbrecht told someone to shut the door. He lectured the workers on “bullying.”
“And you’re starting a lot of it. You!” one shot back.
She was furious that Grumbrecht had just goaded two people into quitting. “Both of them were damn good workers!”
At one point, Grumbrecht acknowledged that the meetings appeared to be making everyone miserable.
“It seems to me that you’re being dragged into these meetings and none of you want to be here, whether you’re pro-union or pro-company,” he said. “Nobody wants to be in these meetings.”
He told them there would be more.
After the workers left the room, Grumbrecht appeared to speak approvingly of the resignations. “I could have cut that meeting short a half an hour ago because we’ve already won,” he said to a manager, according to the video recording. “They’re gone.”
One worker who resigned testified that she cried the whole drive home.
“I just lost my insurance,” she said. “I lost one of my favorite jobs I ever had. I lost everything in that moment work-wise.”
A majority of workers had signed union cards when the union filed for an election weeks earlier. But after the meetings with the consultant, Nick’s firing and the resignations, the union lost the vote 3-6.
A Peculiar World
A majority of workers had signed union cards when the union filed for an election weeks earlier. But support frayed as the campaign wore on, and several workers asked to retract their cards. After the meetings with the consultant, Nick’s firing and the resignations, the union lost the vote 3-6.
The union accused the company of a slew of labor law violations. Board officials found merit in the claims, and the labor board’s general counsel pursued a case against MAC as well as Teague’s firm, Sparta, accusing them both of unfair labor practices.
The trial was conducted over Zoom, and one of the challenges was keeping the parties straight due to the pseudonyms Teague and Grumbrecht had used. Witnesses knew the two as Black and Green, so their real names created confusion. When a witness mentioned an individual named Matt Brown, the parties had to clarify whether that was a real identity or another color-based alias.
The trial revealed some strange business practices at Sparta. Another persuader, Zachary Langren, testified that he often handled the firm’s billing. Langren said that when dealing with clients, he sometimes uses an “alter ego” named Gina, for which he maintains a separate email account. “I found that most employers do not like answering to a guy as much when it comes to a billing discrepancy, so I use a female name,” he explained.
Langren testified that he went to college and studied business and law but never earned a bachelor’s degree. He learned how to be a persuader from other persuaders. Teague testified that Langren had also done odd jobs for him, including mowing his lawn.
Langren said that captive audience meetings were generally mandatory, with certain exceptions.
“If you’re working a coffee shop, for instance, they’re not necessarily going to have a conference room. So if you have a 16- or 17-year-old employee and you’re bringing them into a dark closet to do a meeting, of course they’re going to feel a little bit uncomfortable,” he explained. “So that’s an instance that we would be, like, ‘Hey, you go ahead, you can leave.’”
The labor board’s attorney was able to prove not only that Nick was illegally fired, but that his two co-workers who resigned had no choice but to quit rather than subject themselves to another captive audience meeting. Under labor law, such “constructive discharges” are tantamount to firings.
In a stinging decision in favor of the union, the judge wrote that MAC and Sparta had committed a “veritable smorgasbord” of unfair labor practices, and ordered that MAC offer reinstatement and back pay to Nick and the two women who quit. According to the union, two of the three have opted to return to the company. In a rare move, the judge also recommended that MAC be required to bargain with the union due to the breadth of violations. The union is now trying to negotiate a contract.
MAC declined to appeal the judge’s decision. Reached by phone, MAC’s Ballman told HuffPost he had nothing to say about the consultants he hired. He said he did not want to revisit the case. “I move on,” he said in a brief conversation. “I let it go.”
Asked if he had ever considered recognizing the union rather than hiring consultants, Ballman politely declined to talk any further. “I think we’ve had enough of a chat here,” he said.
Teague’s firm was ordered to “cease and desist” from threatening and interrogating workers. Three weeks after the ruling came down, Teague’s firm got a contract to provide a persuader to Findhelp, a tech startup that seeks to “modernize” America’s social safety net, according to a Labor Department filing. The company, which couldn’t be reached for comment, retained Teague’s firm to “educate employees” about their rights, the filing states.
During the trial, the judge couldn’t help but try to satisfy his own curiosity about the persuaders’ work. At one point, he asked Teague how he expected to enforce a contract on a client in court if he signed it with the name Jack Black. After all, such a stunt could potentially nullify the agreement.
“It strikes me as, just, peculiar,” the judge said of the practice.
“Oh,” Teague responded, “this whole world we’re talking about is peculiar.”