This article was published in partnership with The Intercept.
Corporations may soon have to confront a revitalized and militant labor movement, an influential employer relations consultant warned in a recent memo to business leaders.
The memo, sent on April 20, anticipates the May Day protests by service sector, warehouse, and delivery workers around the country today, who have walked off the job to highlight poor work conditions and perilously low pay.
“This is the first time since the early 1980s where I sense significant interest by employees in ‘collective action’ and ‘3rd party representation,’” warned Rick Berman, a lobbyist who has waged war against labor unions on behalf of business clients for decades.
Berman warned that employees concerned about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other online platforms to share their concerns about the workplace, a situation that has given union organizers greater access to disgruntled workers.
The rise in digital organizing and the unprecedented stress the pandemic has imposed on workers in a range of service-sector jobs also coincide with polls that show rising support for organized labor among the 18-to-34-year-old demographic.
“Most current HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion,” the memo noted. “This will most likely happen in individual companies or it could be a wider industry movement in a city or region.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused soaring unemployment, which reached a total of 30 million new claims this week, while putting so-called front-line workers at a high risk of infection to make ends meet. A growing number of grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse stockers, and agricultural workers have spoken out about dangerous working conditions and low wages.
As The Intercept has reported, an unprecedented coalition of workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, and FedEx are planning to walk out on work Friday. The protests are designed to bring attention to the lack of safety equipment, hazard pay, and minimal sick leave offered to workers during the pandemic.RelatedAs Amazon, Walmart, and Others Profit Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Their Essential Workers Plan Unprecedented Strike
In recent weeks, Amazon has fired employees who have spoken out about allegedly unsafe conditions at the company’s warehouses. Chris Smalls, one of the fired workers, was an assistant manager at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, where he organized a small protest over worker safety in late March.
“This is a proven fact of why they don’t care about their employees, to fire someone after five years for sticking up for people and trying to give them a voice,” Smalls told Vice News.
Amazon has said that the company fired him for “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk.”
The company, meanwhile, has reportedly stepped up efforts to monitor employee sentiments at its grocery chain subsidiary, Whole Foods, as part of a plan to prevent workers from joining a union.
Berman, in his memo, advertised his company’s services. “Our company history includes us working with major law firms and others to deny the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE HERE, UFCW and the UAW the opening to unionize employees who do not have a full understanding of the liabilities,” he wrote.
The memo attached articles about a recent wave of protests among fast-food workers, subway operators, and other essential employees on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak.
Berman operates several groups dedicated to lobbying and public relations on labor-related issues, including the Employment Policies Institute and the Center for Union Facts. In the past, major corporations, including Marriott and Tyson Foods, have retained Berman, though his full client list is not public. The HR Policy Network, a division of Berman’s lobbying company, lists Applebee’s, Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Wendy’s, and the Corner Bakery Cafe among its corporate supporters.
“We’re always flattered to receive coverage and recognition for our education programs, and make no apologies for the advocacy of employees’ rights. The need for public education on union leaders’ abuses of power is greater than ever,” said Berman in a statement to The Intercept.
The memo closes on an optimistic note for corporations. “The good news,” Berman claimed, “is that most unions do not have competent union organizing staff that are skilled in managing this opportunity.”