Orlando union buster Labor Pros has a history of skirting federal law | Orlando Area News | Orlando

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photo by McKenna Schueler

A building in downtown Orlando where the anti-union Labor Pros list their address in forms disclosing their persuader activity for employers.

Organizing activity among workers in the United States is on the rise, and support for labor unions among the general public is the highest it’s been in decades.

From union drives at Starbucks, to Trader Joe’s, Medieval Times, college campuses and low-wage industries in the U.S. South (an atypical hotbed for organizing) this wave of unionization has employers scared.

Scared enough that they will often turn to “union avoidance” experts like the Labor Pros, a consultancy firm based in Orlando that has a history of flouting federal labor law — because it’s easy, and there have historically been few or no repercussions.

First established in 2003, the Labor Pros is a prominent anti-union firm headed by founder Nekeya Nunn — a labor relations consultant who “believes in keeping companies union-free.”

The firm offers an array of “union avoidance” services to extinguish the “threat” of unionization. They offer vulnerability audits, to evaluate how at-risk your workforce is of organizing a union.

“We are specialists in creating positive work environments for your employees to ultimately avoid unionization,” Nunn stated proudly in a promotional video posted to Vimeo in 2002.

Over the years, the firm’s consultants — who invoice hundreds of dollars per hour — have been retained by the likes of big names like Hilton Hotels, Bed Bath & Beyond and Guitar Center, as well as other employers in retail, healthcare and food distribution.

Nunn, the firm’s chief executive, was also allegedly hired to bust a unionization effort by Amazon workers in Alabama in 2021, along with a swarm of other anti-union persuaders.

Financial disclosures show the Labor Pros don’t typically take on work locally. Although that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for it.

In 2021, for instance, Orlando Weekly obtained invoices that showed Valencia College paid the anti-union law firm Allen Norton & Blue up to $250 an hour — and over $10,000 in a single month — for legal services in 2018, when adjuncts first filed for a union election with SEIU.

That union drive was a messy, prolonged affair that dragged out for years thanks to pushback from the college. But in 2021, adjuncts voted in favor of unionizing anyway, and have secured their first contract.

Orlando Health, one of the region’s largest healthcare systems, hired two non-local union avoidance firms from 2013 to 2015 to “educate” healthcare workers about their union rights, public records show — around the same time Orlando Health hospitals found themselves in a dispute with National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union of registered nurses.

And over a decade ago, Pirates Dinner Adventure, a dinner theater in Lake Buena Vista, enlisted the help of the Labor Relations Institute, another notorious anti-union firm who’s worked for the likes of companies like Aramark, Williams-Sonoma and Dollar General.

But the Labor Pros and their diverse cadre of subcontractors tend to travel. And they’ve gained quite a reputation out there on the road.

‘One of the most egregious’ non-compliers of federal labor law

Like other persuaders, the Labor Pros are afforded leeway to operate largely in the shadows, exploiting loopholes in labor law and weak enforcement to disclose as little information as possible about what they do.

Under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, anti-union labor consultants (also known as “persuaders” or “union-busters”) are required to disclose their “persuader activity” within 30 days of entering into an agreement with employers.

Those reports are listed publicly online through the agency’s database.

Employers themselves are also required to file financial disclosures of any agreements they enter with persuaders within 90 days of the end of the fiscal year.

The aim of the law is to promote transparency, both for workers and for the general public.

Filing these reports allows workers to see for themselves when their employer has retained outside consultants to influence their decision to organize for better pay and working conditions.

More importantly, because persuaders are also required to disclose their fees, it can also show workers just how much money their employer is forking over to try to crush their union.

Problem is, the industry has a notoriously spotty record when it comes to compliance.

Anti-union persuaders, some of whom have been in the business for years, will often either file their reports late, or file them incorrectly, with misspellings or missing information. Some speculate that those misspellings are intentional, to make the reports more difficult to find.

The Labor Pros, with their sizable array of consultants, are “one of the most egregious non-compliers,” according to Bob Funk, director of the nonprofit watchdog LaborLab.

A LaborLab report found that Nunn, the Labor Pros’ founder and president — who sat on the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce about a decade ago — filed 50 persuader reports late in December 2022.

Some of the reports, disclosing work from as far back as 2014, were filed several months late.

Others were filed years after the fact — clearly outside of the 30-day window.

But this isn’t unusual — for the Labor Pros, or for persuaders in general.

This happens “all the time,” said Funk, who’s a former union staffer himself.

Of all persuader reports filed between Jan. 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022, LaborLab found that over 82% of them were filed late.

This problem isn’t new. The issue, as old as the law itself, dates back decades, although it’s gained greater attention in recent years with a resurgence in worker organizing.

Worker advocates like Funk say that violations of the persuader reporting law continue to occur, at least in part, because these failures typically result in little more than a slap on the wrist.

“Under the law, the government could pursue civil or criminal penalties, but we have yet to see an example of them ever doing that,” he said.

As it is, employers will generally just get a call from the Department of Labor with a reminder that they need to be filing their persuader reports on time. And that’s about it.

David Rosenfeld, a union-side labor attorney who’s practiced since 1973, told Orlando Weekly that enforcement has historically been lacking.

The agency in charge of enforcement, the Office of Labor Management Services, has itself admitted a trend of “chronic noncompliance.”

Even more, many persuaders (and employers) will exploit what’s known as the “advice loophole,” which allows a considerable amount of union-busting behavior to go unreported.

Thanks to that loophole, persuaders are only required to report their activity if it involves direct contact with workers.

Like, for example, conducting mandatory meetings (known as captive audience meetings) with workers to provide “third-party education” on their rights in the workplace.

Rosenfeld, the labor lawyer, explained, “[Persuaders] find ways to promise the workers that their issues will be resolved, in ways that aren’t illegal.”

They’re trained to understand what they can legally say, and what they can’t.

“They figure out ways to effectively say, ‘You don’t need the union because the employer’s heard you, and they’ll take care of your problem,’” he said.

Persuaders, themselves a third party in the equation, will often characterize established labor unions as outsiders.

Unions, they’ll say, are just middlemen trying to wedge themselves between you and your employer, or you and your manager (“Hey, we’re a family here”).

They’ll tell you labor unions are ineffective, that they’re simply seeking to pad their own pockets with your union dues.

But then, there’s also work that persuaders can perform behind the scenes that they don’t have to publicly report.

Offering employers advice, for example, on how to navigate or undermine union drives (the “advice loophole”).

They can provide anti-union training for your higher-ups (so your favorite manager can bust the union from inside), and perform background checks on workers to identify any information they can exploit during a union drive, even if it’s totally unrelated to the workers employment or job performance.

And none of this “advising” has to be publicly reported.

“The loopholes in [the LMRDA] are shameful,” Martin Jay Levitt, a former persuader, wrote in his seminal book, Confessions of a Union Buster, published in 1993.

“[They’re] enormous, gaping errors in the law that have left room for a sleazy, billion-dollar industry to plod through, without even sucking in its bloated middle.”

A thriving, billion-dollar ‘anti-union’ industry

Union avoidance firms like the Labor Pros, who milk companies for every dime they won’t pay their actual employees, dispatch consultants across the country to persuade workers not to unionize.

And it often comes at a steep cost to employers.

When Guitar Center workers in Seattle sought to unionize with the International Association of Machinists in 2021, the retailer paid Nunn, the Labor Pros’ chief executive, a rate of $450 per hour, and $385 per hour for her consultants, according to a Labor Department filing.

For five months’ work, they agreed to pay the Labor Pros nearly $150,000 in total to “provide third-party education and persuader services.” Workers eventually withdrew their bid to join the union.

Bed Bath & Beyond, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, paid the firm over $900,000 for their persuader services between 2020 and 2022, including $769,000 in 2021 alone.

But they don’t just bust up retail drives.

A private healthcare system in New Mexico paid the firm $211,485 for less than two months’ work to dissuade healthcare workers from unionizing.

Labor Pros persuaders have, to date, received over $1 million dollars from United Natural Foods, the primary distributor for Amazon’s Whole Foods Market.

Last November, the Labor Pros were also hired by a public charter school in Missouri to crush organizing activity among educators, who ended up filing a labor complaint over their employer’s “union-busting” campaign.

Just this year, two consultants were shipped off to bust a campaign at a Barnes & Noble College Bookstore at Rutgers University, where they failed spectacularly.

Workers at the bookstore, many of whom are college students themselves, voted unanimously to join the union.

“It was solidarity that got us to where we are today,” said one of the Barnes & Noble workers involved in that effort, who asked Orlando Weekly not to use their name for fear of retaliation.

Funk, the LaborLab director, said, “They’re definitely players that bring in millions of dollars going around the country.”

Some anti-union consultants in the industry, Funk said, are lawyers. Many are former HR people, with no background in labor relations. A handful are former union staffers themselves.

“Usually they got kicked out of the union for embezzlement, or voted out or something like that,” Funk claimed, saying they get frustrated, feel burnt out or angry, and “go to the other side,” where they can advertise their insider knowledge as an edge.

The ethics of the work are questionable. But it’s a lucrative industry, and — particularly in recent years — one that not only welcomes diversity, but boasts it as leverage on the job.

An ‘inclusive’ union-busting industry

As The Intercept has reported, language commonly affiliated with social justice spaces has been effectively co-opted by top persuaders in recent years to better reach, and connect with, a diverse workforce.

Persuaders, some of whom are people of color themselves, will sometimes use a person’s language, cultural background and the concept of inclusivity to develop support against the union effort.

“We’re seeing a lot of organizing by women and in communities of color,” said Funk. “And we’re seeing an increase in these firms hiring people that kind of match that demographic.”

Nekeya Nunn, the head of Labor Pros, is a Black woman herself, and has defended her work publicly, which sometimes includes diversity and inclusion training for employers.

“I’m a proponent of listening, heart-led leaders, people who make decisions on how they would want somebody else to treat them,” Nunn told The Intercept last year.

“People work for companies that make them feel valued and included, so if that’s a tactic to not have a union, then so be it.”

click to enlarge Screenshot of Labor Pros CEO Nekeya Nunn, taken from the consultancy firm's website on Aug. 4, 2023. - The Labor Pros

The Labor Pros

Screenshot of Labor Pros CEO Nekeya Nunn, taken from the consultancy firm’s website on Aug. 4, 2023.

Nunn, who also independently offers consultations as the “Savage Spiritualist™,” did not respond to emailed interview requests from Orlando Weekly  for this story.

Luis Alvarez, a sometimes subcontractor for the Labor Pros, was caught lying about his identity to a largely Latino workforce at a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Manhattan during their own organizing drive with the independent Restaurant Workers Union.

According to Labor Notes, Alvarez allegedly introduced himself as “Luis Medina,” a friend of management, before admitting his use of a pseudonym. Orlando Weekly‘s efforts to reach Alvarez for comment were unsuccessful.

Records show Alvarez is also one of the two Labor Pros consultants hired to bust the union drive at the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore at Rutgers University.

Eric Knittel, an assistant department manager at the bookstore, told Orlando Weekly that folks in suits swooped in not long after they’d made their desire to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union clear, and began holding one-on-one captive audience meetings with workers.

Laila Oriaku, a rising senior at Rutgers University and a barista in the bookstore’s cafe, felt “very intimidated” after one of these meetings, which she had been told was some sort of “training.”

She was taken off the floor during her shift, forced to leave a fellow barista behind, and led to a back room, where the two persuaders introduced themselves as “part of HR.”

We’re not union busters, they made sure to clarify.

They showed her a slide presentation featuring information about labor unions that she was expected to take at face value.

“Everything was negative,” Oriaku told Orlando Weekly.

Knittel, 28, said some of the messaging they used, particularly with Black workers, was “jarring.”

Consultants, in some instances, allegedly compared union membership to “chattel slavery” and “Jim Crow.”

“Comparing themselves to like, abolitionists, almost,” said Knittel, who was not pulled into these meetings himself, but who would make a habit of checking in with his co-workers directly after they were.

Speaking to Black workers, anti-union consultants in some instances allegedly compared union membership to “chattel slavery” and “Jim Crow.”

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“You can’t like, separate race from all kinds of oppression,” said Knittel, who found the consultants’ weaponization of racialized language “deeply offensive.”

“Trying to weaponize it in this way is just so … it’s totally craven and opportunistic.”

The ‘inoculation’ business is booming

Despite morally questionable tactics, business these days is booming for the union avoidance industry.

A greater share of U.S. workers, particularly workers of color, are unionizing, even as the percentage of workers actually represented by unions has slightly declined and remains dismally low at 11.3%.

Still, that means more than 16 million Americans were unionized in 2022, up 200,000 from the previous year.

Union contracts can establish guaranteed raises as well as other benefits, such as paid sick leave, heat and safety protections, family leave and a pension.

But employers often don’t make it easy. An estimated 75% to 80% of employers facing a union drive will hire at least one (sometimes multiple) persuaders, according to the labor department.

All in all, employers collectively spend an estimated $433 million on “union avoidance” each year. Some experts say, because of underreporting by employers, in reality it’s likely a lot more.

Employers collectively spend an estimated $433 million on “union avoidance” each year.

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And persuaders use a variety of tactics to find new work.

Some, seeing the uptick in organizing as a financial opportunity, will make cold calls to employers facing union drives to offer their services.

If a union campaign isn’t already in the works, persuaders can still use the wave of organizing activity to their advantage — to instill fear in employers who are worried a union could soon come to them.

“They thrive on creating a culture of fear, so they love pointing out to everyone how much organizing is coming up,” said Funk.

They might say, “Well, you might not have a union campaign at your workplace yet, but don’t you want to make sure that never happens?”

Hire me, they say, and “we’ll inoculate against it.”

They’re not the only ones

The Labor Pros are one of the most active anti-union consultancy firms in Central Florida, but Labor Department filings show they’re far from the only ones.

Valens Business Services, a firm in Winter Garden, was retained by Rogers Behavioral Health in May to combat a union effort by healthcare workers at one of their treatment facilities in Wisconsin.

Last year, the group — which touts being “woman-owned” in the first line of its About Us — also teamed up with a union buster based in Celebration, Sean Lyles of Lyles Enterprises LLC, to union-bust for organic food company Amy’s Kitchen at their Oregon manufacturing plants. Lyles calls himself an “advocate for diversity.” A one-time darling of hungry progressives, Amy’s has faced serious reputational damage and in April named a new president from the rank and file, as well as a newly created “chief people officer.” 

Rallain Consulting, a firm affiliated with LRI and based in Clermont, was retained to snuff out a unionization effort by Pfizer employees in Michigan.

The Kissimmee-based firm D&G Creative Consulting, run by Gregory Peraino, was retained by Amazon last year (along with other persuaders) to conduct captive audience meetings with contracted drivers unionizing with the Teamsters.

The firm was also enlisted last spring to “educate” employees of their rights at a plasma center in Gainesville, who ended up voting in favor of unionizing anyway.

The labor department’s database lists over 600 persuaders, but Funk said only about 100 persuaders in the U.S.  actively disclose their activity.

Many individual persuaders contract with firms like the Labor Pros before branching out to work on their own.

There’s “so much back-scratching in this industry,” he said. “These guys are constantly kicking extra work to their buddies.”

Why the underreporting of persuader activity continues to occur

The Department of Labor, according to worker advocates, has been slow to beef up their pressure on persuaders to follow the law.

Congress, which has effectively neglected a proposal to strengthen workers’ rights under federal labor law, has been even slower to give persuader requirements teeth.

Ryan Stygar, an employment lawyer from Centurion Trial Attorneys, told The American Prospect last year that a lack of punitive measures is to blame for repeated violations.

Under law, a false report or “willful failure to file a required report” could lead to civil or criminal penalties.

But Rosenfeld, the labor attorney, told Orlando Weekly he’s not aware of a single case where someone has been criminally prosecuted for failing to file a persuader report.

The U.S. Department of Labor, he said, has “wide discretion” in their enforcement, like any other administrative agency.

Enforcement of the law suffered even more during the Trump administration.

HuffPost reports that the number of mandatory disclosures filed by persuaders fell markedly, from 746 in fiscal year 2016 to less than half that in 2020.

Under the Biden administration, that number has ticked back up.

And they’ve made incremental steps to strengthen reporting requirements. Under a new rule adopted by the Department of Labor, employers will soon be required to disclose on their own forms whether they’re a federal contractor or subcontractor.

Federal contractors are barred from using federal contract dollars to pay for a union buster, so this move could ostensibly help ensure that’s not happening.

The OLMS last year also reopened its tipline, and relaunched a program to help inform employers facing union drives of their obligations to file reports disclosing their financial agreements with persuaders.

While companies with a long history of union-busting, like Starbucks, are well-acquainted with the law, smaller employers who aren’t as well-versed in labor law might benefit from the guidance, said Funk.

Education and outreach, he says, could go a long way, at least in some cases.

Closing the “advice loophole” — which allows for “indirect” persuader activity to go unreported — could also help level the playing field.

Labor officials during the Obama administration tried to close this loophole, an effort that was years in the making, but business groups sued to prevent the proposed rule change from being enforced.

The Trump administration, subsequently, rescinded it.

Worker advocates say Congress also needs to give the OLMS also adequate resources to adequately enforce the law, as weak or toothless as some believe it to be.

Calling persuaders out publicly — or contacting the OLMS to tip them off about unreported persuader activity — can also sometimes increase compliance, said Funk, if only because continuing to get flak for noncompliance could drive away prospective clients.

Nunn, for her part, has filed 10 reports disclosing persuader activity since her December dump. Just two were filed on time.

“They have operated for years now outside of the rules of the law, and we’re desperately trying to change that because they do work on so many campaigns all over the country,” said Funk.

The public, he added, also has a right to know whether companies are union-busting and violating workers’ rights.

“It’s kind of useless information if it’s years after the fact, or an election’s already been won or lost, and the company and persuader were just allowed to continue their activities in the shadows.”

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