This week, state legislators in Minnesota passed a package of pro-labor measures that instantly makes the state the envy of workers everywhere. The new laws include paid sick days for everyone, banning noncompete agreements, a crackdown on wage theft, and a wage board to set pay in the nursing home industry. All a big deal. But let’s talk briefly about one in particular: A ban on captive audience meetings.
As you know if you have ever hung around union people who are in the process of getting extremely mad, “captive audience meetings” are when the boss calls a mandatory meeting for employees, and then proceeds to lie to them about how bad unions are. Of all the tools in the union-busting playbook, captive audience meetings are probably the most brutally effective. Most working people have only a very tenuous grasp on the nuances of what a union is and what it does, so it tends to be very easy for employers to deceive them in outrageous but technically legal ways about the scary things that will happen if they choose to unionize. Also, most working people really need their jobs in order to live, so it tends to be very easy for employers to terrify them that if they unionize they will either be fired, or their job will disappear because of rising costs and whatnot.
Every captive audience meeting, from an Amazon warehouse to a college campus, basically goes: “Hi folks, take a seat, take a brownie if you like. I’m just here to rap with ya a little bit because as you know, we’re a family here. You may have been approached about organizing a union recently. Of course, that’s your right and the decision is totally up to you. We just want you to be fully informed. So: What is a union? It’s a business that wants your dues money. Every heard of Jimmy Hoffa, or the mafia? Yeah. And what happens if you unionize? You can never talk to a friendly manager again. You have to go through some third party. Pretty sad considering we have an open door policy here. Also, I can’t tell you that this business will close if you unionize, but I can say that some businesses do close when a union comes in. Money doesn’t grow on trees, sadly. That would be a bummer! Anyhow we got you all pizza.”
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These meetings can be tailored to be more friendly or more threatening, depending. I have reported on more of these than I can count at all types of businesses, and they are all full of lies. Highly paid consultants, all of whom should be in jail, write the scripts for these meetings, and sometimes come in and run them. If you ever in your life meet someone who is involved the captive audience meeting industry in any way (at a dinner party or something) you should spit at their feet and tell them to fuck off. They are bad people whose business cards should read “We Lie To Further Oppression.”
If you think about it, it’s pretty wild that these meetings are legal in the first place. What does your employer pay you for? They pay you for your work. They pay you to perform a set of tasks collectively known as “your job.” That’s it. It is highly unlikely that a legitimate part of your job is “being harangued about your boss’s extreme right wing beliefs.” That’s what anti-union propaganda is, when you get right down to it. It is no different from going about your business stocking shelves at CVS and then being pulled into an hour-long meeting at which your manager explains in detail why communism is the one true and just economic system. It is no different from finishing your shift at the insurance company and then having to sit and listen to an outside consultant argue that the 13th amendment should be repealed, in order to help the company’s bottom line. The argument that you should not have a union—that you should act against your own social and economic self-interests—is kooky and insulting, even moreso when that argument is being delivered by the person who is arguing purely for their own social and economic interests. “You shouldn’t have more power at work, because I want that power instead,” is the gist of what every boss who makes an anti-union argument to his employees is saying. “Better wages and benefits and control of your own life is on the table here, and you should reject it,” they are saying. It’s rude! Why would they say that to you—their family?
I would say that holding a captive audience meeting by definition creates a hostile workplace. Our legal system is just not quite enlightened enough to recognize it yet. But common sense is all you need to understand that it is unreasonable to force working people to attend mandatory meetings at which their boss delivers to them the equivalent of an Ayn Rand book reading. All your boss is entitled to is you doing your job, and listening to that shit is not your job. If all workers took a moment to marinate in the sheer shamelessness of a company forcing them to listen to a spiel about why they should voluntarily reject the idea of improving their own lives, captive audience meetings would lose their power. Any boss that tells you that a union is a bad idea is, at minimum, a boss who is willing to lie to you, and who is acting against your best interests. That person is not your friend. That person is your foe. I have a dream… that one day… the act of holding a captive audience meeting will automatically trigger unanimous support for the union, because all the workers will be so insulted by the audacity of such an act. But until that day, banning them is the only fair thing to do.
The PRO Act, the big fantastic labor reform bill that the Democrats cannot pass through Congress, would automatically make captive audience meetings an unfair labor practice. But the PRO Act will never pass until the filibuster is abolished (and maybe not even then—I have no doubt that there are a number of corporate friendly Democrats who say they support it now only because they know it can’t pass). Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel of the NLRB, who is the single most enthusiastic pro-union government official in America, is trying to regulate captive audience meetings out of existence on her own, though her ability to do so is still up in the air, and also anything good she does will automatically be reversed as soon as a Republican president is elected and nominates Simon Legree as her successor.
So the reality is that states are the playing field where these battles can meaningfully be fought. Over time, more blue states will emulate Minnesota’s reforms, creating an ever more stark divide between blue states with higher union density, higher wages, and greater legal protections for workers, and red states with low union density, lower wages, fewer regulations, and a worse social safety net. It’s a natural experiment: Which is better, workers who are healthy and happy and earn enough to pay the bills? Or the opposite? (We actually know the answer because the South has been running this experiment for several hundred years. You can drive around Mississippi to see the incredible flourishing of wealth that it has produced.) This divide, which in Fox News terms is presented as “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” can more accurately be seen as Semi-Regulated Capitalism vs. Plantation Capitalism, or Moderate Worker Power vs. No Worker Power. The theory that “labor” is not a word for human beings whose flourishing is the proper interest of the state, but rather a word for a cost that should be brought as close to zero as possible in order to accrue wealth for owners of capital, has been entrenched in red states and particularly the South for much longer than I have been alive. It’s confusing, since it actually makes red states poorer. It only makes sense if you leave enormous numbers of poor, non-white people out of your political calculus altogether, because you don’t consider them to be relevant to a discussion of human welfare.
The point is: Captive audience meetings are the equivalent of your boss stealing money out of your pocket and lying about it and then patting your head and calling you dumb and then saying “I didn’t call you dumb.” A friend would never do that to you. If you are ever subjected to such a thing, you should be insulted. You need not respond to such treatment respectfully. You should instead—respectfully, via collective bargaining—kick your boss’s ass.
Minnesota has a great fucking labor movement. Here is a story I wrote in 2018 about CTUL, a badass worker center in Minneapolis. Check out Workday Magazine for good labor journalism covering Minnesota and the Midwest.
The dead-end anti-worker red state economic philosophy is covered at length in my upcoming book, which should be out early next year. Wow! Get hype!
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Conservatives would prefer to absolutely dominate a poorer society than have slightly less power in a more equitable but wealthier society.
Besides waiting on congress and state legislatures, do you think there is a way at a grass roots level to counter captive meetings? Like email everyone who is victim to a meeting and share the truth about unions? Also how much money do companies like amazon and Starbucks spend to fight unionization? Thag always blows me away. And also costco pays their workers a decent wage so theres less turnover. Why cant other companies follow suit? Isn’t high turnover incredibly expensive?