"We have the right to educate you": Workplace indoctrination caught on tape

In leaked recordings, bosses lecture workers not to unionize, and insist, "This truly is for your best interest"

Published November 4, 2013 5:05PM (EST)

  (AP/Matt Rourke)
(AP/Matt Rourke)

Two leaked recordings offer a rare firsthand taste of the workplace pressure tactics advocates say are all too common whenever workers try to form a union. One recording captures a manager telling an activist worker one-on-one, “There’s nothing I don’t know,” “There’s no secrets anymore,” and “I am upset with you personally” for pursuing unionization without telling him. The other captures the same manager telling a group of employees in an Oct. 24 meeting, We have the right to educate you, and we’re gonna exercise that right.”

Both clips were recorded by Duluth, Ga., employees of Iron Mountain, a document storage company. Workers in a driving and shredding unit have petitioned to join the Teamsters union, triggering a government-supervised election scheduled for late November – and what organizers charge is a coercive campaign of surveillance, retaliation and anti-union lectures designed to keep the company 97 percent union free.

“They’re constantly talking to us” and “harassing us” not to unionize, one Iron Mountain employee told Salon. He asked that his name be withheld due to fear of punishment. “A lot of guys want this thing but are scared to speak out because they don’t want to deal with the retaliation.”

“While we can’t verify whether these recordings are complete or unedited,” Iron Mountain spokesperson Daniel O’Neill e-mailed Salon, “they capture our manager’s efforts to begin educating our employees in Duluth, Georgia on joining a union.” O’Neill said the company had listened to the recordings.

In the first recording, a man identified by the Teamsters as Iron Mountain department manager Scott Krieg confronts employee Wayne Walker about his involvement in the union drive. Krieg says, “I know what you did, Wayne. It’s all out. There’s – there’s no secrets anymore. There’s no – I know about this meeting. I know about the card-signs.” Krieg also tells Walker, “I was a little disappointed at the fact that you went and did that without at least telling me upfront,” and “I am upset with you personally because of what I’ve done for you in the past.” Krieg closes by saying, “If that’s what you want to do, by means do it if you think that’s what’s best for your family, but just make sure you’re educated.” The week after the conversation, Walker was fired by Iron Mountain.

In the same discussion with Walker, Krieg tells him that he “will be educating people” about the union drive. “Because the people I met with today, they don’t have any idea what they signed up for,” says Krieg. “And they will now. They will know the truth. And by law I’m allowed to do that. So I hope you did your homework. I really do.”

In the second recording, Krieg is joined by another manager – identified by the Teamsters as his boss Ted Dunn -- for what it’s suggested will be the first in a series of collective meetings devoted to “educating” employees. (O’Neill’s emails to Salon did not respond to requests to confirm Krieg and Dunn were the managers in the recordings, and Krieg and Dunn did not respond to Sunday inquiries.) Krieg tells employees he’s “very disappointed” some are seeking union recognition, and Dunn tells them he “can’t help but take it personally … it does hurt. It does sting.” Krieg portrays unionization as risky, lonely and quixotic, noting that the company and the South are both overwhelmingly non-union, warning that while “right now everybody’s equal,” a union can require that layoffs be done in order of seniority, and declaring that “Iron Mountain is not going to do anything for a union employee that they’re not doing for a non-union employee.”

“Those of you who don’t want the union, OK, you’ll be here regardless, OK?” Krieg tells the room of employees. “And those of you that are in the union – that want the union – and we don’t get it, there’s not gonna be a union. So it’s both sides of the fence here, guys, and it affects everyone.”

Echoing his comments to Walker, Krieg says, “We’re going to educate you on what you will and will not receive, OK … We’re gonna do it without intimidation. But we have the right to educate you, and we’re gonna exercise that right.” “This truly is for your best interest,” adds Dunn.

“It made you scared to speak up and say anything, you know,” the employee told Salon. “Especially with management being so ‘disappointed,’ as they said they were.” He said that “the most intimidating part to me” was seeing how one of his anti-union co-workers “was able to voice how he felt about it” in the meeting, but a pro-union worker was “shot down” quickly by management when he tried to offer a counterpoint.

Asked about the company’s anti-union campaign, and whether management had stayed within the bounds of federal law, Iron Mountain’s O’Neill emailed, “Our intent in these meetings is to inform employees, not to pressure them as the union alleges … We respect our employees’ legal right to form unions. We are committed to ensuring they’re properly and legally educated to make an informed decision.” O’Neill wrote that “As to the claims made by the Teamsters and Mr. Walker that we surveilled him or terminated him for any union interests or activities, that is not true. Out of respect for Mr. Walker’s privacy and because this is in litigation, we will say only that we terminated him for cause and very specific issues unrelated to union activity.”

Under federal labor law, it’s generally legal for companies to compel employees to attend mandatory anti-union meetings (so-called captive audience meetings) and “predict” negative consequences from unionization, but illegal for them to engage in punishment or surveillance of union activism. Unions argue the National Labor Relations Board’s paltry penalties and prolonged process don’t do much to deter companies that disregard those bans.

In charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the Teamsters allege that Iron Mountain “terminated employee Wayne Walker in retaliation for his union and/or protected concerted activities.” The union contends that Krieg’s recorded comments to Walker strengthen its case. And it says other comments in the recording demonstrate the kinds of intimidation managers can take up while staying within the letter of the law. “Most of the things that the employer was saying are quasi-legal, but that makes it no less coercive …” said Ben Speight, the organizing director for the union’s Georgia local. “They’ve clearly been coached, and they’re walking right up on that line.”

While a manager can be heard in the recording telling a worker who asks that there would be “no repercussions” if someone chose to abstain from the meeting, O’Neill told Salon that “under most circumstances, we’d expect employees to attend meetings held during normal working hours.” Speight told Salon that even if the company gave workers the option to leave the meeting, that would require any workers who didn’t want to participate to effectively out themselves as union supporters. “It’s coercive by nature, by definition,” he said, “for the employer to be permitted to pay people” to attend such meetings, “and to call it their normal work hours.”

During President Obama’s first term, his appointees to the NLRB approved a change to the rules for unionization elections that unions hoped would modestly mitigate companies’ anti-union campaigns by shortening the time between workers petitioning for an election and the government conducting one. As I’ve reported, a top anti-union firm held a conference call in December 2011 urging companies to deal with shorter election periods by holding more frequent anti-union meetings for their employees, preferably at least five in under a month. But the NLRB’s election rule change was thrown out by a district judge the following May on procedural grounds.

According to the Iron Mountain employee, the company responded to media reports about the audio of the Oct. 24 meeting by holding additional employee meetings Oct. 30, in which management said “if anybody’s recording, let’s just put it on the table now,” and “if you don’t have integrity, you won’t get far.” The Teamsters’ Speight echoed the claim management raised the recording in Oct. 30 meetings with employees. Asked about it, O’Neill emailed that “The manager leading that meeting asked our employees if they were aware that last week’s meeting had been recorded” but “did not ask who made the recording.” O’Neill said management was providing “a courtesy heads-up that the union could record and broadcast future meetings.” O’Neill suggested that, to hear exactly what was said in the latest meeting, Salon could ask the Teamsters if they have it on tape.

By Josh Eidelson

MORE FROM Josh Eidelson