Leaked files from IRI Consultants, a union avoidance firm, obtained by Vice’s Motherboard show the disturbing lengths to which companies will go in order to derail workplace organizing. The leaked records include a spreadsheet of anecdotal personal information the company had gathered about the employees of one client, Conifer Health Solutions, who hired IRI Consultants to thwart a union drive at two hospitals the company owns in Seattle. The document included data about employees’ private lives, including descriptions of workers as “lazy,” “impressionable,” “money oriented,” and “a single mother.” IRI Consultants was hired by Google in 2019 at a time when a growing number of the tech giant’s workers were pushing for unionization.
IRI Consultants is one of many union-busting firms that help businesses prevent workplace organizing by intimidating workers, tracking employee behavior, and engaging in workplace anti-union propaganda. The war against workplace organizing in the United States through intimidation and surveillance dates back to the 1870s and the origins of the American labor movement. In response to strikes and other labor agitation, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was passed by Congress, making it illegal for employers to spy on employees and guaranteeing workers the ability to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Nevertheless, companies like Google attempt to circumvent the law by hiring union avoidance firms like IRI Consultants as independent contractors to engage in surveillance and intimidation on their behalf.
As Lauren Kaori Gurley reported for Motherboard, “[E]mployers in the United States spend roughly $340 million on union avoidance consultants each year.” These union avoidance consultants usually move from one business to the next, giving advice to management and holding anti-union “educational” meetings.
The leaked documents Motherboard obtained demonstrate IRI Consultants’s detailed profiling of workers. The documents show that the firm collected incredibly detailed information on 83 Seattle hospital employees, including their “personality, temperament, motivations, ethnicity, family background, spouses’ employment, finances, health issues, work ethic, job performance, disciplinary history, and involvement in union activity in the lead-up to a union election.” IRI Consultants assigned each worker surveilled a rating on a scale from one to five, with ones deemed to be the most pro-union and fives believed to be the most pro-company, based on the information IRI Consultants gathered. It then used the metric to target individual workers in an effort to sway them to vote “no” during union certification elections.
Google has adamantly denied allegations that it engaged in personal data collection on employees to prevent their organizing, arguing that it enlisted consulting firms for a host of reasons and not for the purposes of union-busting. However, such claims are highly dubious given that Google hired IRI Consultants, which specializes in union avoidance, at precisely the moment when its employees were attempting to organize a union. January 2021 saw the creation of one of the first tech company unions, the Alphabet Workers Union, that represents workers at Google. The union has responded to Google’s denial that it collected personal data by telling Motherboard that “Google claims to value privacy, then expends resources on consultants like IRI who are intent on collecting worker data in order to manipulate employees to work against their best interests.”
Google is not the only Big Tech company to enlist union avoidance consultants in recent years. In fall 2020 and spring 2021, employees at Amazon’s massive fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama launched a much-publicized unionization effort. As John Logan detailed in a lengthy article for LaborOnline, Amazon responded to the Bessemer drive by spending at least $3,200 per day on anti-union consultants Russ Brown and Rebecca Smith and by bringing in a second union-busting consulting firm, Labor Information Services. The company also hired Morgan Lewis, one of the largest law firms in the country specializing in union avoidance. Ultimately, Bessemer employees voted 1,798 to 738 against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a crushing defeat for organizers and an apparent vindication of Amazon’s anti-union maneuvers.
There has been some establishment press coverage of large corporations hiring union-avoidance firms to undermine workplace organizing, mostly focusing on tech giants like Google and Amazon. In November and December 2019, both the New York Times and the Washington Post noted that Google had hired IRI Consultants. The cover story in the February 23, 2020 New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Great Google Revolt,” was devoted to unionization efforts at Alphabet and other Silicon Valley companies, and mentioned in passing the tech giants’ use of anti-union consultants. However, there has been no corporate news coverage whatsoever of the sensational leaks that Motherboard released in January, and there has been very little in-depth corporate media reporting on the use of union-busting consultants in general.
Indeed, the only other coverage of the Motherboard leaks was a brief January 8, 2021 post on the independent, grassroots labor news site Payday Report. In August 2020, The Conversation published an article by labor educator John Logan about how “a handful of little-known law and consulting firms do much of the dirty work that keeps companies and other organizations union-free,” which mentioned Google’s use of IRI Consultants and discussed the tactics of such consulting firms in general. The documents leaked to Motherboard confirm and greatly elaborate upon what labor organizers and educators have suspected of the specific tactics the union-busting firms employ.
Lauren Kaori Gurley, “‘Lazy,’ ‘Money-Oriented,’ ‘Single Mother’: How Union-Busting Firms Compile Dossiers on Employees,” Motherboard (Vice), January 5, 2021.
Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.