Captive and Coerced: How Employers Bust Union Elections

Corporate bosses will go to almost any length to prevent their workers from unionizing. It’s something we’re seeing in real-time as Amazon and Starbucks workers fight for a voice on the job. Like many companies scared of a union, Amazon and Starbucks hired consultants to guide their counter-assault on employee organizing. And it’s not cheap. An Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study reported that American employers as a whole spend an estimated $340 million annually on “union avoidance” consultants, who can make $350 per hour or even $3200 per day

Why are they spending so much? It’s simple. Companies want to have total control of how they work their staff, when and for how much. When employees unionize, they’re taking back some of the power that the boss holds over them. Union workers make more money, are more likely to have access to pensions and health insurance, and enjoy safer workplaces than non-unionized workers. A short-sighted company driven solely by profit will count all of those benefits as a drag on the bottom line. 

Of all the union-prevention tools the consultants bring, the so-called “captive audience” meeting with employees can be the most effective, and most insidious (or as Starbucks calls them – “listening sessions.) They’re called “captive” for a reason, as employees are required to attend if they wish to keep their job. The presentations can be run by the consultants or company staff, but the core message is – ‘vote no on the union.’ It is illegal for employers to discourage unionization directly, but a trove of recordings and first-hand accounts show a gross disregard for the rules.

Amazon representatives were recorded laying out anti-union arguments to employees at their Staten Island facility. They warned that a union would “seek to disrupt the direct relationship between Amazon and our associates” and could result in reduced benefits and higher healthcare premiums for employees. The lecture also included disinformation about union dues and described an anti-union website,, as an “unbiased” source on unions. Remarkably, this is the same plant that just successfully voted to form a union – the first in Amazon’s sprawling empire.

Target has made employees watch a video that warned unions “would change our fast, fun and friendly culture.” It also asked “what happens to our team” if the company loses the ability to serve guests due to “rigid union contracts.” The video closes with the words, “Refuse to sign, and keep Target union free.” A captive audience meeting can take place one-on-one, too. After being fired by a New York Target, Tashawna Green gave sworn testimony that members of management warned them not to “mention anything about a union” or “you could be terminated.”

Even smaller, unabashedly “progressive” companies have used mandatory presentations to stifle a union drive. North Carolina-based No Evil Foods, a vegan food manufacturer, made their employees sit through multiple sessions when a union vote was approaching. Secret film of one of these meetings showed their hip, young CEO warning that investors would pull funding from a company that’s been unionized. And that forming a union could prompt a re-evaluation of pay, benefits, and health coverage. The union vote failed. A year later, the CEO released the entire workforce anyway, outsourcing production to a different facility.

There’s a reason employers bank so heavily on these meetings – they work. A different EPI investigation showed that employers held captive audience meetings in a whopping 89% of union election campaigns between 1999 and 2003. The average employer held 10.4 meetings during the course of an election campaign. Whereas the union win rate in elections in which captive audience meetings were not utilized was 73%, that figure dropped to 47% when management used mandatory meetings.

But this weapon of choice for employers may be headed for the chopping block. If Congress passes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, employees would no longer have to choose between their job or attending anti-union presentations. And the top attorney at the National Labor Relations Board just issued a bombshell memo calling captive audience meetings a violation of the National Labor Relations Act and asked the Board to prohibit them.

For now, the forced “meetings” continue across the country. Like in Olympia, Washington, where Starbucks employees about to receive union ballots were ordered to attend “listening sessions” with their managers. We caught up with the workers on their way out to hear why they’re unionizing and what their “listening sessions” were like.

We spoke with Starbucks workers at Cooper Point Village in Olympia, WA after a captive audience meeting with management. WATCH HERE: