NY Post: Unions’ deceptive ‘salting’ loophole leaves a bad taste

Published in the New York Post
November 3, 2023
by F. Vincent Vernuccio, president of Institute for the American Worker


Will 2023 be the year labor unions reverse their long membership decline?

After hitting a record-low unionization rate of 10.1% in 2022, unions are looking to a loophole in federal labor law that centers on deceiving workers.

They’re bringing back an old union tactic called “salting,” and as new polling from my organization shows, Americans want Congress to close this loophole and give workers the transparency they deserve.

Consider the union campaign to organize Starbucks, which got its start in New York.

More than 350 of the company’s stores have unionized, yet employees’ decisions were often anything but organic.

Workers United — a Service Employees International Union affiliate — hired labor organizers who got jobs at Starbucks, then pushed for unionization on the coffee company’s dime — while also collecting a union paycheck.

These “salts” start by building trust with workers.

As one Starbucks salt told a group of fellow organizers, it’s best to do “thankless chores” that gain the appreciation of peers and “make the company less suspicious of you.”

Yet once they’re done unclogging toilets, they smear the employer while creating a toxic work environment.

Salts complain about management, pay and working conditions and suggest forming a union is the only solution.

They can rally specific workers to show up for elections and encourage less-supportive employees to sit it out.

This could help explain why some recent union victories have come with as few as 11% of employees voting.

Workers often don’t realize their colleagues are deceptive union plants.

One Starbucks barista in Buffalo told the media salting is “very unsettling because some of these people I thought were my friends.” Another Starbucks worker said it’s “very scheme-y.”

Workers at 19 Starbucks stores and counting have already filed petitions to decertify their union, in part reflecting anger at the deception that accompanies salting.

It appears salts frequently leave the workplace after a successful unionization election, prioritizing the next union target over the workers they claimed to stand with.

Starbucks is far from the only company to experience salting.

When Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to organize last year, at least six union-paid salts had already pushed their nonunion coworkers in that direction.

Union activists say salts are important in organizing fast-food companies like Chipotle.

Labor-aligned media outlets like The Nation and Jacobin have called for a resurgence in salting, and unions seem to be heeding this advice.

Look no further than a Teamsters local in Connecticut that’s hiring salts with the intention of placing them at unknown companies.

How many salts are active nationwide?

There’s no way to get an accurate number, which is the problem.

Unions aren’t required to disclose their organizers’ identities, either official or undercover, though some salts disclose their identity voluntarily.

By contrast, federal law requires transparency from employers.

When employers pay labor consultants to talk to workers about unionization, they must disclose the consultants’ identities within 30 days and detail their pay, expenses and activities.

The consultants must also file their own federal reports.

If businesses have to be fully transparent, labor unions should, too.

Anything less is a disservice to workers, who have the most at stake yet know the least about how the union is trying to sway them.

Salts are “the secret ingredient in a once-in-a-generation wave of union organizing,” according to Bloomberg.

But labor unions want to keep them secret, the better to deceive workers with the appearance of grassroots support for unionization.

One Starbucks salt even hid her union affiliation (and nearly $50,000 in union pay ) when testifying before Congress last year, thereby breaking the House’s “truth in testimony” requirement.

Unions want to keep salts in the shadows, but Americans want them brought into the light.

In a new poll from Big Village, my organization found 75% of Americans agree that if employers need to disclose their labor consultants, unions should disclose all their organizers, including salts.

Some 59% want unionization elections with hidden salts to be thrown out as unfair.

And 62% want workplaces to be able to ask applicants if they’re union organizers — something that’s banned under federal law.

Businesses should be able to reject candidates who are clearly only there to unionize workers.

This loophole needs to be closed quickly.

Employees need to know if their angry coworker is bought and paid for by the union, putting a union agenda ahead of workers’ interests.

If unions truly want to reverse their decline in membership, they should try transparency and honesty instead of secrecy and deception.

F. Vincent Vernuccio is president of the Institute for the American Worker.