by Wade Rathke
Pearl River In organizing unions, captive audience meetings are the scourge of organizing drives. The employers have the right to make the meetings mandatory in order to deliver their anti-union screeds, but union representatives are unable to attend. Organizers spend hours preparing committee members and union activists how to takeover these meetings so that they build strength and hold onto support. Often organizing drives are won and lost right at these meetings, because when the union is able to turn the tables, the bosses don’t schedule more meetings and leadership is developed. Having implemented and used this strategy in scores of organizing drives, I’m a great believer, but it is class struggle, trial by fire, and as many drives are lost as won with these tactics.
Talking to Shaun Richman, a former organizer and author of a new book on labor strategies on Wade’s World called, “Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21sth Century”, he added some context for both the history of captive audiences and advocated a strategy for dealing with them using the NLRB. Richman noted that in the early years under the National Labor Relations Act, unions had access to the workplace in order to make their case for unionization. The NLRB issued two decisions on the same day. One was the Excelsior Underwear case, famous to all organizers, because it required companies to prove a list of the name, addresses, and other information on all members of the potential bargaining unit who were eligible to vote in an upcoming election. The other, often forgotten by our generation of organizers, was the decision they issued later on that day that withdrew the right of organizers to be able to have access to the workplace to make their case, which then ushered in the long parade of captive audience meetings.
Richman argues that we should file unfair labor practices with the NLRB every time an employer holds a mandatory captive audience meeting. His argument is sort of a version of the old Cloward-Piven break the bank strategy, that if enough ULPs are filed for this activity, that a future NLRB board in a world after-Trump, might be pushed into making them illegal. Richman, who led drives for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in charter schools, including my old high school, Benjamin Franklin in New Orleans, where in a great personal “turnabout is fair play” moment, I got to advocate for the teachers’ recognition as a former graduate and union ally, found that filing ULPs was commonplace in white collar drives. Maybe so? I wish filing them and enduring the endless NLRB bureaucratic process were not so burdensome on unions and workers as well!
This is just one of his arguments. Others like the questionable value of collective bargaining, the ridiculous burden of exclusive representation, members only, and multiple union workplace representation are also cases that I have made for decades, so I felt like I had found a fellow traveler. Even where some of his notions are unlikely to find their way to reality, he offers key historical insights from his research that are invaluable. To build worker power, we desperately need new thinking that is out of the box, and that is rooted in our organizing history and the lessons from contemporary struggles. Shaun Richman’s Tell the Bosses We’re Coming is worth the read!
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International