Photo: Bates College campus | David Gale
Bates College administration continues to dig in against the ongoing staff unionization effort. In recent weeks, the school has brought in a series of anti-union consultants, the latest hire a high-priced Boston lawyer who has drawn the ire of Massachusetts labor advocates and who once admitted in a meeting with workers attempting to organize that she is “not neutral.”
The administration has been enlisting consultants to host meetings for staff since adjunct faculty and non-managerial staff announced in October that they had filed for a union election. The meetings are presented as unbiased informational forums about the pros and cons of unions.
Beacon has learned that some of those meetings are now being led by labor attorney Katie Lev, who runs her own so-called “union avoidance” consulting firm, Lev Labor LLC.
The Bates meetings have so far been voluntary, unlike what are often called captive audience meetings. Routine for decades, such meetings are tactics used by employers to erode possible union support by requiring workers to attend anti-union briefings. While the Bates meetings aren’t compulsory, union supporters at the school say Lev is far from a neutral source of information.
‘Make no mistake about it. I am biased.’
Huffpost reported that during a 2016 union drive by journalists at the subscription legal news service Law360, Lev was recorded telling staff during a meeting, “Make no mistake about it. I am biased. I am not neutral.”
In the recording, Lev insisted that she was however “neutral” in her role as a board member of the Commonwealth Employee Relations Board, a Massachusetts state agency that adjudicates disputes involving the state’s public sector unions.
Lev was appointed to the board in 2015 by Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Charlie Baker. In 2018, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union Local 509 joined together to call on Baker to remove Lev from the board, saying she could not be a neutral arbitrator while also running a union-avoidance firm.
“A zebra’s stripes don’t change,” Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Steven Tolman wrote in a letter to Baker.
The following year, the unions picketed Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts after 20 health workers were fired for what labor leaders alleged was retaliation for attempting to unionize. The labor leaders called on the health center to cancel its contract with Lev and another anti-union consultant.
Lev is the latest anti-union consultant that Bates has brought in since staff announced their plan last month to join the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989, which also represents Beacon staff. Adjunct instructors, dining and facilities workers and other professional staff are attempting to organize the college wall-to-wall by forming the Bates Educators and Staff Organization, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention.
As Beacon previously reported, the administration has also consulted with Nicholas DiGiovanni, a Boston-based employment lawyer with experience countering higher education union drives, and Carol Holland, a human resource consultant with experience “assessing and mitigating labor risk.”
Staff have confirmed that, as of Nov. 19, Holland continues to lead so-called informational meetings. The administration would not confirm whether they are still retaining DiGiovanni’s services or if they were concerned about Lev’s neutrality.
A look inside an anti-union meeting
Prior to her anti-union consulting career, Lev was the senior director of labor relations for CVS Pharmacy. She has since been contracted by several employers through the Labor Relations Institute, a leading anti-union consulting firm. According to a 2019 disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor, Walgreens paid Lev a day rate of $2,500 for her services.
According to Bates staff, Lev has led four meetings with workers so far, leading students who support the union to raise alarm at how much the administration may be spending on consultants.
“I think students are angry, asking, ‘Why are our tuition dollars getting put to work for these really expensive anti-union consultants in a way that disagrees with the mission of the college?’” said Wilder Geier, a student organizer rallying support for the union.
Beacon obtained a recording of one of the meetings facilitated by Lev on Nov. 5. During a question and answer session with professional staff, Lev does not tell employees how to vote, but delves deep into SEIU bylaws to paint a negative picture of the union.
Union supporters that shared the recording of the meeting disagreed with several of the answers Lev gave to staff.
In the recording, Lev said that she had never seen “open shop” SEIU unions in the private sector, meaning a union where membership is not a condition for being hired or for continued employment.
“I will say in my 20 years of experience, I have never seen an SEIU contract that doesn’t require employees to pay dues as a condition of employment where that is lawful,” she said, referring to states like Maine without so-called “right-to-work” laws that essentially require that every unionized workplace be an open shop.
“There’s a lot of misinformation going around, like, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry, you don’t have to pay dues,’” she told Bates staff. “I would get that in writing from someone telling you that. Get their commitment that they’ll pay [your dues] for you. Otherwise, it’s likely to be a condition of employment.”
Union supporters disputed that claim, citing Maine organizations like Preble Street and the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) which have open-shop unions.
Consultant meetings are intended to intimidate workers, says longtime union rep
Todd Ricker is the lead labor representative with the Maine State Nurses Association. Before that, he had 20-year career as a union organizer. He explained that there are a number of common tactics consultants like Lev use in these meetings.
A majority of nurses at Maine Medical Center voted last April to join the Maine State Nurses Association after facing an aggressive anti-union campaign that involved captive audience meetings. The campaign was orchestrated by the firm Reliant Labor Consultants. A U.S. Labor Department disclosure shows that Lev worked with Reliant in 2020.
One tactic Ricker has seen by consultants is compelling undecided workers to vote in the union election.
Lev told Bates employees at the recorded meeting, “If you have one takeaway from this session today, it is really important to cast your vote for or against … If you’re not sure, I would encourage you to ask more questions, but every single person should be voting.”
Ricker explained, “They know that there will be the highest turnout of ‘no’ votes if everybody votes, so that’s their get-out-the-vote strategy.”
He said that another common tactic is convincing workers that management has heard their concerns and a union vote can be deferred.
“If Bates staff haven’t heard it already, next they’ll say, ‘Give us another chance. Give us a year. We can just go back to being a happy family and work out our problems with each other without these outside third parties getting involved,’” Ricker said. “The whole point is to undercut somebody’s instincts to vote on their own behalf, to vote to have a real voice at work.”
Ricker further warned against fact checking anti-union consultants at the expense of understanding the power dynamics in play during in union elections.
“The most important thing about captive audience meetings is that the employer can force employees into these meetings, to make it clear that the people who sign their paychecks are against them having a union. Just the fact that they exist is more important than what any union busters says or doesn’t say. It makes very clear the imbalance of power,” he said.
He added, “Yes. They want to give people misinformation. Yes. They want to confuse people. But a lot of times, people on the pro-union side want to seize on what’s true and what’s not true. The point is that the meetings happen.”
Author: Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at dan(at)mainebeacon.com.
Source: Maine Beacon, November 22, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/bates-latest-union-busting-hire-has-long-record-of-being-not-neutral/