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“Communicating Directly,” “Partners,” “Values" : Your Guide to New Age, Anti-Union CEO Speak
It's not enough to be rich and powerful. Today's CEOs also want to be progressive, enlightened, socially responsible, and—worst of all—your friend.
For some time now, a particular brand of CEO doesn’t want to be your boss, but rather, your mentor, your advocate, your friend. Sure, they may make 10,000X what you make, have billions, own seven houses, ski by jumping out of helicopters in Aspen. But, they assure you, they truly care about your best interests.
Relatedly, the most essential purpose of public relations, as an industry, is making the bad seem good, the rough palpable, the gross sanitized, the cynical idealistic, and the anti-worker equitable. When these two ethos combine, we get the modern New Age Corporation: a hip, “progressive” institution that Does Things Differently.
But, of course, like all corporations, their goal is to squeeze the maximum amount of labor—emotional, physical, mental—out of their employees for the least amount of money, an immutable reality that flies in the face of their ostensibly humane brand. So to reconcile these two inherently contradictory forces, a new moral grammar must be invented: a new way of speaking that obscures this tension and papers over the disconnect. To do so, the modern New Age CEO must use certain terms, words, and phrases. Not all CEOs or managers use this type of fluff, but those concerned about cultivating a progressive public image (often used to obscure their old-school-style union-busting tactics) are increasingly turning turning to goofy, faux-egalitarian language. Let’s dissect the more touchy-feely side of anti-union rhetoric.
1. “Collaborating directly,” “staying inside the “family”
A very popular and patronizing new age corporate concept is that unions prevent “direct” communication, and it’s best to keep these discussions “inside the family.” After all, direct communication is an essential part of all healthy relationships. It’s a hippy-dippy spin on the popular labor trope we discussed last month, that unions are an “outside force” or “third party.” In fact, union organizers have a word for it: “third partying.” The idea that this “third partying” undermines “direct communication” is straight from the union busting script, no matter how warm and fuzzy it may seem.
An Amazon statement after the JFK8 fulfillment center voted to unionize in April said the company was “disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.” Similarly, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz insisted on a May 3 earnings call that, in lieu of unions, the company prefers “connecting and collaborating directly with our people.” REI’s CEO and president Eric Artz, in an anti-union podcast episode (that somewhat infamously led off with land acknowledgements), told workers that he “believed the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees”.
Don’t you see: unions prevent direct communication!
What does that mean? Well, nothing really, but it sounds deep and meaningful. Unions, we are told are, are simply in the way. And instead of handling things directly, unions introduce a complicated third party that muddies up “directness.” But employees and management are not spouses or two best friends or a personal chosen relationship with some type of power symmetry. They are an inherently combative and hostile relationship where one party has, by definition, all the power, money, and authority, and the other has to fight for any comparable power. Thus, the relatively powerless party must create an institutional voice that can use collective labor power to articulate the demands of the workers. A union is not an “outside” force somehow interrupting “direct” communication—it’s the amplification and articulation of one voice that has historically been deliberately silenced by those with power.
What is a corporate value? How does an LLC have values? And most important of all, of what use is a value, if said value is compromised by the existence of a union?
Union-busting REI CEO Eric Artz (2019 take home pay $3.3 million) recently invoked “values” when bashing a unionization effort by REI employees, saying on the aforementioned podcast he wished to put REI “values into action” and was committed to doing his “best to lead by putting our values first.” Starbucks CEO Schultz can’t go two second without talking about Starbucks “values,” recently telling employees, “With significant pressures leading to the fracturing of our partner and customer experiences [read: unionization efforts], I’ve been transparent about our missteps and the reason for my return—to reimagine Starbucks—built on our core values and guiding principles.”
Of course “corporate values” and $2.95 will get you a cup of Pike Place Roast at Starbucks. Which is to say they mean exactly zero, or at least they mean nothing without an opposing force compelling high-minded CEOs to live up to these alleged values. Unions historically aren’t the only reason corporations do right by their workers—liquid labor markets, attracting the best people, and other considerations may help, but these factors create a floor, not a ceiling. “Corporate values” are marketing fluff—they’re not contract obligations, they’re not job security, they’re not anti-discrimination laws. Baristas and retail workers and nurses can’t pay rent on “corporate values.” Nine times out of 10, if a worker hears “corporate values” being invoked, they need to check for their wallet.
One cartoonishly over-the-top example is from the late summer of 2020, when the head of an expensive New York City Quaker private school, Brooklyn Friends School, sought to justify why management was refusing to negotiate a first contract with the school’s union. As Hamilton Nolan reported for In These Times, the school’s head, Crissy Cáceres, had invoked a Trump-era National Labor Relations Board ruling that exempts religious schools from the legal requirement to bargain with unions. In an August 2020 letter to parents, Cáceres explained her reasoning:
We respect that our truths and divergent opinions are all part of one greater spirit that we can only access through direct and open communication of these individual truths. If we are to fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and celebrating every individual’s inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs, we must be legally free to do so.
Management eventually dropped the petition to the NLRB to disband the union following a strike by faculty and staff, and union members did ratify their first contract in March of 2021. But this is one of scores of examples of how squishy “values” rhetoric can—and is very often is—used to attempt to shift conversations away from matters of material power relations into abstract, noncommittal, aspirational, gooey prose.
3. “Partners,” “team members,” “associates”
A tactic popular in new age corporate speak for decades is the practice of not calling your employees employees, much less “workers.” By giving them a pleasant-sounding title like “partners,” “team members,” or “associates,” corporate managers give a false, purely rhetorical sense of parity where no economic or material parity exists. Being a member of a “team,” being an “associate” or ''partner” or ''family,” deliberately obscures the class and power dynamics at work, and blurs the line between workers and management.
Schultz of Starbucks is one of the foremost purveyors of this kind of rhetoric. His constant invocation of his “green apron partners” make it seem like he’s just a regular guy talking about his pals and equals, not the powerful head of a service industry empire, addressing the low-wage workers who have made him his billions, as he viciously opposes their unionizations drives. On the May 3 earnings call mentioned above, he gushed to shareholders about “the passionate relationship our partners have with the company and the enduring emotional connection our customers have to the Starbucks brand.” That was the same call where he said he’d retaliate against unionized shops by declining to give them the same “wages and benefit enhancements” he was extending to other stores.
When he spoke about the wave of unionization that has swept the company, where more than 50 U.S. stores now unionized, he sounded like a hurt and disappointed father, who understands where his “partners” are coming from, but knows better:
We are highly empathic to the root causes of the frustration and anxieties that Gen Z Americans are facing, having come of age during turbulent moments in our history: the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, The Great Recession and now The Global Coronavirus Pandemic. These young people have completely valid concerns given today's uncertainty and economic instability. They look around and they see the burgeoning labor movement as a possible remedy to what they are feeling.
I understand the climate, and I'm deeply sensitive to the needs of all of our Green Apron partners. Yet, we have a very different and vastly more positive vision for our company based on listening, connecting and collaborating directly with our people.
Here’s how one corporate Starbucks representative recently put it to In These Times journalist Hannah Faris: “From the beginning, we have been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”
In reality, Starbucks has subjected workers to aggressive union busting: mandating that they attend captive audience meetings; closing down stores where workers were attempting to unionize; firing workers who are union organizers; sending high-up Starbucks management to conduct surveillance; and dispatching Schultz himself to dissuade workers from voting to form a union. According to a complaint just filed by a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, Starbucks broke labor laws by firing six pro-union workers and perpetuating retaliation and intimidation in the state of New York. The complaint “also implicated CEO Howard Schultz, alleging he violated the law last November by promising ‘an increase in benefits’ if they didn’t unionize,” reports Dave Jamieson.
This is less a “partnership,” and more of a standard union busting tactic used by CEOs who are hell-bent against giving workers a modicum of workplace democracy or power, whatever Schultz may say about ‘understanding where Gen Z is coming from.’ The workers who steam milk, sweep floors, stock the fridge, and wash dishes understand this reality, which is why the unionization drive has momentum, with the pro-union side winning 85% of all the elections it’s held thus far, and union election slated to take place in over 100 more stores.
4. “Unions are rigid, old fashioned hierarchies. Our company is free, flexible, and open.”
A favorite trope for anti-union messaging is the idea that unions inhibit “freedom” and “creativity” and reward mediocrity. “Unions,” the New Age CEO insists, “are a straitjacket on your personal voice and development. Why would you want that?”
It’s a popular line because it appeals to narcissism and the understandable desire to consider, first and foremost, one’s own career and aspirations. If a shop is unionized, your own Randian personal ambitions will be undermined and stifled under a rigid authoritarian union regime.
A classic example of this is the now infamous viral Target anti-union video. (Note: It went viral in 2014 but was filmed in 2003—apologies for the error!)
Notice how they use the word “rigid” and “old fashioned” three times each. The theme—which is repeated throughout the video (the entirety of which can be watched here)—is that unions are an artifact from a different time, a relic that stifles creativity, harming both employee and employer alike. It’s a superficially attractive argument because, on some level, people understand that unions introduce new rules and regulations. But they do so to benefit the workers. And, as we noted last month, one in four workers polled in 2008 said their workplaces are dictatorships. Employers do nothing but introduce rules and regulations, and manage, over-burden, surveil, and stifle personal freedom. The idea that the current, non-union workplace is some free flowing love letter to personal expression is, of course, absurd. But anti-union propagandists gloss over this reality by conflating what’s good for the “customer” with what’s good for the worker when they rarely, if ever, overlap in any meaningful way.
Notice, too, in the above video, the casual propaganda term “cross-train” is used to describe understaffing a store and having an employee work what is, in effect, two positions at once. This is a cost cutting measure imposed by management that’s spun as something beneficial to the worker. In corporate P.R.-speak, all exploitation is framed as “flexibility,” “professional development,” and an “opportunity to grow professionally.” Those pesky unions would require management to actually properly staff stores, which would mean that horrible black and white example they give where a consumer has to rundown a random employee passing by would be far less likely to happen in the first place.
Indeed, let’s take a look at two recent, more high stakes examples. One study released in April found that, between June 8, 2020 and March 21, 2021, nursing homes where workers were unionized had a 10.8% lower death rate among residents than their non-union counterparts. Not only were unionized nursing homes safer for residents, but also for workers: Covid infection rates were 6.8% lower in unionized nursing homes, the study found.
Unions also make schools safer. A 2021 study found that “the average teachers union was associated with a 33 percent relative increase in the probability of school districts adopting a mask mandate,” according to the researchers, who note, “That was true even when controlling for local coronavirus case rates, support for Trump, and the other factors mentioned above.”
A major reason for the association of unions with a measurable increase in safety is that “rigid” “old fashioned” “union rules” require businesses to be properly staffed and trained, and management to listen to safety concerns. Unions are a major reason why workers have won a modicum of protective workplace measures, from safer nurse-to-patient ratios to the 40-hour work week.
But there’s another, more basic argument to be made: When CEOs talk about “freedom” and “creativity,” whose freedom and creativity are they discussing? Personal creativity and freedom are ever further out of reach when one has to worry about how one can pay rent, buy food, afford childcare, or pay for transportation. In other words, economic security is vital for any sense of freedom and agency. Unions have a proven track record of protecting economic security, closing the racial wealth gap, and generally moving us closer to material equity.
Critically, a worker’s concept of freedom or creativity may differ from a boss’s definition. Bosses want to extract as much profit as possible. A worker, on the other hand, may wish to be challenged more intellectually, or develop a particular skill, or pursue loves outside of work, like painting or research or long-distance running. There’s this great quote from the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” On a broad, social level, there are unknown levels of genius and creativity that could be unleashed if we did away with the practice of forcing entire classes of society to spend their half their waking lives toiling in exploitation and poverty. How does this factor into the buzzwords CEOs espouse? And how could increasing the power of unions on a society-wide level unlock new forms of creativity and freedom?