So there’s a company out in North Carolina called No Evil Foods. They are a vegan food company that loves to appropriate leftist icons to market their products, such as calling their vegan chorizo “El Zapatista.”
Will it surprise you to know that these people are as anti-union as Carnegie Steel in 1892 or General Motors in 1937? It should not surprise you! In fact, they went full union-busting. Recordings of their anti-union meetings came out. I was able to listen to some of them. It was something. There is a great David Dayen story about all this in The American Prospect that I gave some commentary for.
“We are nowhere near close to being profitable yet,” Woliansky said, pointing to a chart. He explained that while demand for plant-based foods had soared, and while No Evil products had jumped from 1,400 to 5,500 stores in a little over a year, “it takes a lot of money to launch and grow a business … and at this point that money doesn’t come from sales, it comes from investors who believe in our product.” The balance sheet showed consistent projected losses at about $200,000 a month. That was the plan, to spend what was necessary to build scale. The only thing that could get in the way, he explained to the workforce at the mandatory meeting, was if they voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
“It’s a very real risk that having a union at No Evil Foods will greatly impact our ability to continue raising capital,” Woliansky intoned, the self-described leftist singing off the song sheet of cold-eyed capitalism. “I had one of our current investors say this week, ‘I’ve seen hundreds of companies come across my desk, and I have never seen an investment in a unionized startup … if I was looking at this business for the first time, I would run the other way.’”
It was a devilishly clever closing argument for what was a brutal, coordinated campaign against the union drive. Woliansky’s hands were clean; the threat didn’t come from management, but from the investors. They would bring down the company if workers tried to assert their collective rights. “Please understand that I have no control over what investors will do,” Woliansky stressed. He said that unionization would be seen by investors as a “vote of no confidence” in leadership. He could be deposed, with a new CEO brought in “to run this business in a very different way.” Investors might simply pull their money, or they would demand that management re-evaluate pay, benefits, health coverage, everything. Workers could lose what little they had.
“If you’re still thinking about voting to bring the UFCW to No Evil Foods, I’m asking you to step back, give us a chance to be successful by voting no,” Woliansky concluded. “You can always bring the union back in a year for another vote. But you’ll never know what we could have done and achieved together if you do it now.”
Of course, this full-fledged anti-union pushed worked and the pro-union workers lost the election.
The message was clear: No Evil Foods cared about its workers. It provided health benefits and extra pay for the night shift. It fixed the concerns that initially animated the union drive. It made sacrifices that other startup companies wouldn’t to give back to the workforce. It hired people who’d been incarcerated and attempted to rehabilitate them. (Several workers told me managers seeded a rumor with these people that the union would drug-test employees, raising their anxiety.) And what the company was doing was working, with rising sales and excitement about the future. “I think the best thing I can say is it comes down to trust,” Woliansky said. “Sadrah and I really do have a vision for what we want to do here.” That vision could only be derailed by the union vote.
“They did a good job cultivating this team language that’s difficult to get over the hump,” says Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, who reviewed transcripts of the meetings. “And reading transcripts with swearing as part of the general conversation, like we’re hanging out and having a good time. That’s going to be effective in creating a situation that’s cynically very paternalist … it’s very insidious and tremendously effective.”
Prior to the union drive, workers told me that they were friends with their colleagues, able to sit down and talk in a civil manner about just about anything. But the effectiveness of management’s campaign could be seen in the question-and-answer sessions held at the end of the meetings, which often devolved into shouting matches among the workers. By the end, pro-union voices were being told by their fellow employees to “go find another job,” and that “this is [Woliansky and Schadel’s] company … don’t try to be here and fuck up what they got.” This was more than just people expressing their opinions about their job and the company and the union; it got personal.
The infighting grew into a manifestation of how the union itself would toxify the pleasant workplace. The worker discussions served to prove the point management was making. “I swear these people got off on making those of us especially vocal about it,” said Meagan Sullivan. “They’d just push us and push us until we hit a breaking point, where we’re visibly upset. They painted us like we’re these emotionally unstable bullies. That was the goal, to cause tension between all of us.”
It’s part of management’s playbook, according to Muehlenkamp, the former Teamsters organizer. “You have to create this miserable workplace, and then you provide the relief at the end,” he said. “This is the psychological, physical, economic, manipulative system, and all the parts work together.”
Rarely do you get an opportunity to see exactly how important a union job would have been to a group of workers. With a contract, they would have been able to negotiate over hazard pay and workplace conditions during the pandemic. They would have been warned 60 days in advance of any shuttering of the facility (small workplaces with under 100 employees, like No Evil Foods, are exempt from this legal requirement). They would have been able to work with the company to try to save their jobs. Instead, taking on faith that the bosses would look out for them and take care of them, the workers ended up with nothing.
The theme of the anti-union meetings was that unionization was a risk, a roll of the dice, a threat to the status quo. But businesses are inherently fraught with danger. The risk is always present, as workers at No Evil Foods found out one year later. But people are naturally protective of what they already have, and suspicious of the unknown. With unions so decimated as a percentage of the U.S. workforce (they represent just 6.3 percent of private-sector employees), it’s easy to paint a nefarious picture of them to the uninitiated, and then let human nature do the rest. “It’s really underrated how scary it is to vote yes,” Loomis said. “In the modern workplace it’s a brave act to vote for a union.”
The only way to reverse this is with strong labor laws that prevent the most egregious anti-union tactics, including captive-audience meetings of the kind we’ve quoted from in this article. Absent such laws, it will be very difficult to prevent the mass psychological experiment that management has enacted, with sophisticated precision, over the past 40 years. Whether at a meeting or on the shop floor, those tactics will continue. Workers looking to organize must be prepared for them.
There’s a lot of reasons why forming a union is so incredibly difficult today. Some of it is labor law, absolutely. But some of it is also this weird combination of a culture of personal individualism combined with a rhetoric of family and teamwork at the workplace that belies the fact that you as a worker have no rights at all. I mean, how often do employees use the term “we” to describe what their employer does? It’s a routine part of conversation about work. But is “we” about it? Are you making the decisions about what happens with your employer? Do you have any say at all? Probably not. But this is so internalized. And it makes it easy for employers to use that language in a union-busting campaign. In purportedly leftist workplaces where you make products to save the world through consumer choices and people swear freely and go drinking together and then the guy you were having beers with last night makes you work 13 hours because an order is behind or something the next day, that just creates even higher mental barriers to unionization.
In any case, like Google’s “Do No Evil” original slogan, No Evil Foods seriously needs to change its name.