Workers at the Lowe’s home improvement store on Elysian Fields Avenue made national headlines in October when they publicly launched a campaign to form the first union at any of the retail giant’s 1,700 locations.
But 10 months later, the workers still don’t have a union. And the momentum to form one is gone, according to current and former workers who spoke to Verite.
“The company launched an obvious union-busting campaign,” said Felix Allen, an organizer with Lowe’s Workers United who was fired in June. “And it was definitely successful.”
There are currently three unfair labor practice charges against the New Orleans Lowe’s pending before the federal National Labor Relations Board, accusing the company of a litany of violations in its response to the union drive, including surveillance, interrogation of employees, limiting legally protected organizing activity, and retaliating against union organizers.
In December, Lowe’s Workers United was forced to withdraw its federal petition for a union election over what organizers described as a clerical error. Workers tried to reorganize and file a new election petition, but despite significant initial support among Lowe’s workers, that hasn’t happened yet.
Attempts to regroup have been stymied by a corporate campaign to make organizing as difficult as possible, according to four current and former Lowe’s workers who spoke to Verite for this article. And progress ground to a halt after the company fired two of the lead union organizers, including Allen.
Lowe’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. An NLRB spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the open Lowe’s cases.
The New Orleans Lowe’s unionization campaign came in the midst of a broader national upswing in labor organizing over the past several years, including at massive companies that historically insulated themselves from such efforts — such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple.
“You can be very successful at being a union buster these days,” said Stephen Sorrell, president of the local New Orleans Teamsters union. “And it’s ramping up.”
The thwarted organizing effort at Lowe’s underlines a broader trend in American labor organizing. Although the number of people who want to join a union is reaching historic highs, the number of people actually in a union is reaching historic lows.
“We’ve seen for years that there is stronger public support for unions than there is the ability for workers to become unionized,” said Lee Abbott, a New Orleans Public Library employee who was a leader in the recent, successful effort to win recognition for a city workers union.
“We’ve got a lot of new, energetic, and inspiring labor activists wanting to break ground. But the resources aren’t there to back it up. And these corporations have been girding for years to prepare themselves for such a fight,” Abbott said.
There was a 53% increase in new union petitions to the NLRB from 2021 to 2022. It’s too early to tell how many of them will succeed, but so far the surge hasn’t reversed the decades-long decline of union membership in the US, which fell to an all-time low at the end of 2022 — 10.1% of American workers.
Abbott said many of these efforts face stacked odds “because of institutional barriers” such as state right-to-work laws that can make organizing and maintaining a union more difficult, and a lack of enforcement of federal labor protections.
It can be even more difficult for newly established unions like Lowe’s Workers United, which had virtually no funding, experience or outside help. Allen said that’s part of the reason they were forced to withdraw the union election petition.
The Lowe’s union was able to get 40% of the 172 New Orleans workers to sign a union authorization card, above the 30% threshold to be eligible for a union election under federal law. But a month after filing the union petition, an NLRB agent recommended they withdraw it.
The agent told Allen the petition would likely be denied because the authorization cards only stated that the employees wanted to join “a union” and didn’t specify the exact name of the union, Lowe’s Workers United.
Allen conceded it was a mistake he probably wouldn’t have made if he’d had any past union experience, or had outside legal support. And he said their inability to ultimately form a union isn’t an indication that there’s a lack of desire to unionize among Lowe’s workers, but rather an example of the David vs. Goliath odds workers face at workplaces like Lowe’s.
“I think our union campaign really shows that there are a ton of people ready to get to work” in the Deep South and the retail industry, Allen said. “It’s just that something has to change, because there are so many barriers. My bottom line is we gotta be willing to try new things.”
‘Lowe’s union free philosophy’
Given notoriously low wages in the retail industry, it isn’t surprising that the biggest gripe among New Orleans Lowe’s workers was the pay.
After two years of full-time employment at the store, Allen was making $12.88 per hour. A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Alliance found that workers in New Orleans require at least $19.27 per hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
There were other complaints as well, like growing work demands due to understaffing, arbitrary discipline, job security and lapses in benefits, workers said.
A group of Lowe’s employees began meeting to see what they could do to change things. They started talking to dozens of coworkers and found that most of them had similar problems, and many wanted to do something about it.
“We became really close, we became practically family,” Keyon Williams, another Lowe’s organizer, said.
A lot of their fellow employees were interested in forming a union, according to Williams and Allen. But none of them had ever organized — or even joined — a union before.
“We didn’t really know how to go about things,” Allen said. “A lot of that time was figuring out like, okay, what is the actual process? How do we need to go about this? How do we talk to people about this?”
Allen and Williams knew their “ragtag effort” faced steep odds, in part because of the corporation’s history of union opposition and unfair labor practice complaints.
The company, for example, received criticism in 2020 when it posted a job listing to hire a team of “investigators” to help “support and enhance Lowe’s union-free philosophy.”
The company philosophy was stated bluntly in a leaked union training video for Lowe’s managers:
“Now to put it in basic terms, Lowe’s strongly opposes unions in our company,” says an unidentified man in a Lowe’s polo shirt. “And any suggestion that Lowe’s is neutral on the union issue and doesn’t really care about unions coming into our locations, is just not true.”
The video is clear on how managers have to respond if they see any organizing attempts.
“They should all be treated as dangerous situations,” the man says. “You have an obligation to report any union activity immediately, just as you would any incidents of sexual harassment.”
Allen and Williams’ prediction proved correct. When Lowe’s Workers United filed a petition to form a union with the NLRB in mid-October, the company immediately declared its opposition in press statements and in a filing with the NLRB.
Lowe’s brought in outside consultants and legal counsel, including Barnes and Thornburg, a self described “union avoidance law firm,” and the Labor Relations Institute, a well-known “union avoidance’ consulting firm,” according to a federal disclosure form. Both companies declined to comment.
When employees walked into Lowe’s the Monday after the petition was filed, the work environment had drastically changed.
“It was very obvious, it felt like they were watching us under microscopes,” Williams said.
Along with the consultants, the company also brought in corporate personnel and managers from other stores, according to workers.
“They tripled the number of managers,” Williams said. “They would follow us around asking, ‘Do you know anything about the union? Do you know who started it?’ I’m pretty sure they were eventually able to pinpoint who was involved.”
Allen, whose name appeared on the NLRB union filing, came under immediate scrutiny.
“They had people watching me all the time, literally,” Allen said. “I was the only organizer that management knew about. And there was someone within a 20- to 30-yard radius of me basically at all times.”
The company posted flyers in the office, with blunt recommendations like “think before you sign and reject the union.”
Some reported hearing rumors that if the store unionized, they would be stuck in contract negotiations for years, during which time they feared that they wouldn’t get any of the normal employee bonuses given out at other Lowe’s stores.
“Don’t get played,” another management poster said. “No one can promise you that signing a union card or voting in a union will give you more pay. That’s a cheap campaign promise.”
Almost every organizer Allen listed as an inspiration shared a similar fate — whether or not they succeeded in forming a union, they all lost their jobs.
“What’s the easiest way to get people to back off? Terminate somebody,” Sorrell said. “Once people lose their jobs, everybody starts to think about their families… I told Felix, ‘If you’re spearheading and a company finds out, you’re gonna be the first person they get rid of. That’s a fact.’ ”
On paper, federal law offers American workers a long list of labor rights and protections. They have the right to organize and form unions without fear of interference from their employers.
But some labor advocates say those rights can be hard to rely on in practice.
Neither Williams nor Allen still have their jobs with Lowe’s. Allen submitted an unfair labor practice charge to the NLRB claiming his termination was retaliation for union organizing.
Williams hasn’t worked for the company since February, when she was supposed to transfer to the Lowe’s store in Baton Route. She said she got explicit approval for the transfer before moving her life and three kids to the state capital.
But on her first day of work, she discovered she hadn’t been put on the shift schedule. She was told she had to reapply. Williams filed a new job application, but never heard back.
“That was really messed up. It set me back a whole lot,” Williams said. “I don’t regret anything at all. I just feel like it still needs to be dealt with.”
Allen was fired in June, allegedly because of two safety infractions. Allen provided recordings of his disciplinary meetings that confirmed these two instances were the basis of his firing.
His first transgression was standing on one of the shelves, a practice that three Lowe’s workers said was not only commonplace, but expected.
“I had been doing that for two years and no one said a word,” Allen said. “Managers have been telling me to do it.”
Allen got three warnings for standing on the shelf, meaning that his next infraction could get him fired, according to Lowe’s disciplinary policy.
According to Allen, the second infraction resulted from a manager’s directive.
“A manager told me to go pick something up with a forklift. And I got on the forklift she pointed to, drove it about 100 yards before I noticed there was a tag on the back of the steering wheel that said it was out of service. I told the manager, ‘I can’t be driving this, it’s out of service,’ and got off. And so that was what they fired me for.”
Allen is the only employee to submit an NLRB complaint over his firing, although he doesn’t believe he’s the only person who faced retaliation. Williams also said that she is planning to submit a complaint as well but hasn’t had the time.
Like many workers who’ve filed grievances with the NLRB, Allen could wait months or even years for a resolution. Labor advocates have long complained that the NLRB is sorely underfunded.
Even when cases are eventually considered, labor advocates argue the law often favors employers. There is an incredibly high bar, for example, to prove that an employee was fired primarily because of their union activity.
“Companies have spent decades practicing this work,” Abbott said. “They train themselves on how to be very, very careful so that they can still target union activists and outspoken workers, without it looking like they’re targeting the worker.”
And even if the employee somehow proves that they were fired because of their organizing, the NLRB doesn’t have the ability to fine companies. The best they can do is get the worker rehired and receive back pay, or demand the employer post information on federal labor laws.
“The first [unfair labor practice charge] I filed in December is only now starting to be dealt with,” Allen said. “It’s just too late.”
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