Union Salting And What You Need To Know

Are union salts in your workplace? Do you know the meaning of salting? Union salting in the services industry (and other industries) is a common practice and adds to a company's union organizing vulnerability. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), Section 7, is one of the most powerful laws passed in employment history. Unions use it as a tool for organizing because it gives employees the "...right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities..." As an employer, you do have some rights in the effort to prevent union organizing, but those rights have been eroded over time by legal cases and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions. As difficult as it is to believe, one of the Section 7 words challenged was "employee," and it arose from a case involving an electrical contractor dealing with union "salting," the process of union members applying for non-union jobs to secretly organize the workforce.

IRI Consultants has helped countless companies discover their vulnerabilities to union organizing. There are resources such as custom videos, employee-facing websites, eLearning platforms, and labor relations training to help workplaces create an environment where unions aren't necessary. We've also written numerous informational articles and blog posts on topics surrounding labor law and labor relations and in-depth explanations of some of the more complex issues like lockoutsunfair labor practices (ULPs), and more. Now it's time to revisit union salting. The labor shortage creates a situation in which recruiters and hiring managers rigorously trying to fill vacant positions consider more job applicants than they might under different circumstances. It's a prime setup for union salts, requiring employers to exercise unfailing diligence in the recruitment and hiring processes.

To protect yourself from something like a union salt, you need to know how they operate, their legal rights during interactions with employers, how to detect them, and what your rights are as an employer when they apply for a job. Identifying salts isn't easy because they are well-trained in what they should not say to give themselves away. 

What Is Union Salting? Is It Legal?

What is union salting? Salting is when a union organizer acquires a job at a specific workplace with the intent of organizing other employees. Union salting has been used throughout the history of the labor movement, but mainly in the building and construction industry and manufacturing plants where traditional union blue-collar workers were most susceptible to union organizing. 

In 1995, the Supreme Court asked a critical question during a salting case: "Can a worker be an employee within the meaning of the NLRA if the worker is paid by the union at the same time to help with union organization?" The decision in the case of National Labor Relations Board v. Town & Country Electric, Inc. (U.S. Supreme court, No. 94-947) was "yes." The union and the employer can pay a "salt" (union organizer) at the same time. 

The court reasoned that employers can discipline or terminate a salt like other employees based on work performance or engaging in damaging activities, like sabotage. Employers could not treat salts differently than non-union employees during the hiring and employment processes, and as employees, salts have NLRA protections. In the Town & Country Electric case, the NLRB said the company committed unfair labor practices (ULPs) when it refused to interview or retain 11 job applicants because they were union members.

As the services industry grows and the industries that have traditionally been the main source of union members shrink, like the construction industry, unions are looking for new sources of members. As a result, salting in various industries, including the services industry, is expanding, so savvy employers should understand the practice and what they can do to avoid hiring salts or prevent unionization should salts get hired. 

Union salting is legal, but employers should be aware that union salting has the attention of pro-union National Labor Relations General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo. In her GC Memo 21-04, she indicates plans to "carefully examine" whether union salts are employees because most aren't interested in working for the employer. Her goal, as attorneys JacskonLewis explain, is to "Lower the threshold for "salts" (individuals applying for work, but actually sent by a union for organizing purposes) to be considered "employees" under the law and expanding the monetary remedies available to them." Currently, a salt is supposed to want to work for the employer in addition to recruiting employees for organizing. Though Abruzzo has not been specific about what "lower the threshold" means, it's a safe assumption that she wants to eliminate the need for a salt to actually want the job.

salting in the service industry

Who Is Intimidated By Salting?

It would be nice if a recruiter could ask, "Are you now, or have you been, a union member?" Unfortunately, that is not legal because it is seen as an intimidation tactic that infringes on employee rights. However, employers are more likely to feel intimidated because salts can drag the employer through one NLRB case after another in an attempt to force the employer to spend large amounts of money and time to defend itself against charges of unfair labor practices. 

In 2007, the IBEW targeted the Toering Electric Company for a salting campaign and used an "alternative strategy of imposing such costs on a non-union employer as will cause it to scale back its business, leave the salting union's jurisdiction entirely, or go out of business altogether." The decision in Toering (351 NLRB No. 18 at 4) set the practice of salting back a bit in that the NLRB decided that NLRA protections only apply to union job applicants who are honestly interested in employment. A union member could not apply for a job with the sole intent of getting the application rejected to file a complaint. However, in practice and due to NLRB's decision, salts are not limited by their intent to sabotage a business. It's nearly impossible to prove a person didn't want the job, even if paid by a labor union. 

Union Salts Have Eyes on the Services Industries

Salts are found in many industries, some traditional and some not. The U.S. Census Bureau tracks vital industry statistics, and industries are shifting, and new employee perspectives on union organizing come with that shift. The construction industry has experienced ups and downs in employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment in the industry peaked in 2007 at 11.9 million, fell to 9.1 in 2010, continued to decline through 2012, and grew again to 11.4 million in 2020. Employment dropped again during the pandemic to 10.8 million. 

Thirty percent of construction workers were Hispanic, while other racial minorities were underrepresented, a point of leverage for unionizing. The construction industry is now on the upswing but is unlikely to reach the near 12 million mark again. The prediction is that 300,200 more construction jobs will exist in 2029 compared to 2019, and 60 percent of surveyed construction executives forecast an industry expansion in 2023. The construction industry is expected to experience a workforce shortage of 650,000 in 2022, which puts it back at the pre-pandemic level. As older workers retire and younger workers look for professional positions, unions are faced with continued declining membership.

The manufacturing industry is undergoing a transition also, as the supply chain issues during the pandemic led to serious sourcing problems and cost increases. The manufacturing sector is growing, with more than 367,000 new jobs added in 2022. It's a resurgence of the blue-collar sector which is the traditional union membership base. However, demographics are impacting the ability to recruit new union members. As IRI Consultants discussed, manufacturing is not attracting younger employees. The manufacturing industry doesn't have an exciting image and remains locked in a blue-collar image despite the sophisticated technology now used in most facilities, like artificial intelligence and robotics.

Most millennials are aging, and many are moving into management positions. There is a transition happening as Gen Z becomes the younger workforce members. Many millennials, like Gen Z, began their careers in the service industries as non-managerial employees in the services and tech industries. The services industries include tech, healthcare, finance, hospitality, wholesale, communications, customer services, retail, and various professional occupations. Millennials are now becoming managers and supervisors who can't join a union per the NLRA, and they are supervising Gen Z employees. However, millennials can form independent unions without NLRB approval and without affiliation with a traditional labor union.

Unions are targeting services industries due to these economic and demographic shifts because they believe they can make the most and fastest gains. They want to stop the decline or stagnation in union membership and are having some success. Workers are organizing at Starbucks, Apple, Chipotle, hospitals, assisted living facilities and nursing homes, transportation and warehousing businesses, and most other services sectors. The unions experienced more wins in the first half of 2022 compared to the first half of 2021, and out of 54,260 workers eligible to vote, 43,150 organized (79.5 percent wins).

Currently, unionizing in the services industry is a growing trend, especially in the fast food sector. At one time, people primarily worked in fast food establishments as transitional employment and not as careers. Today, fast food workers are often working multiple jobs to support families. Union organizers are using different strategies to convince employees that organizing to demand better working conditions benefits them. Luis Feliz Leon at Labor Notes said unions might make contact by salting and identifying leaders among employees who listen to them. "The organizer who is salting then builds a committee of worker leaders on the basis of having mapped the workplace to identify how workers organize themselves into social networks or workplace structures." 

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that low unionization rates were in professional and technical services, finance, food services and drinking places, and insurance, all at a rate of 1.2 percent. These are natural targets for labor unions, especially food services and drinking establishments. By occupational group, unionization rates were lowest in food preparation and serving related occupations (3.1 percent), sales and related occupations (3.3 percent), computer and mathematical occupations (3.7 percent), personal care and service occupations (3.9 percent), and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (4.0 percent). Once again, the lowest unionization rates are found in the retail, restaurant, computer, and personal care and service occupations. Personal care and service occupations include home health aides and personal care aides. 

In the eyes of unions, these are fertile grounds for recruiting young adults who are unhappy with their compensation, work schedules, and lack of employee voice in decision-making and who feel like they are already stuck in low-paying jobs with unrecognized career opportunities and get little recognition for their hard work. There is also fertile ground for unionization in technology and healthcare. In 2021-22, 54.9 percent of all unionized workers were in educational services, healthcare, and social services. Though the industry groups do include a large number of public sector jobs, a majority of the employees in healthcare are in the private sector, and one-third of workers are in education. 

What does this have to do with union salting? The industries most vulnerable to unionizing are the most vulnerable to union salting. Salts played a prominent role in supporting the union organizing efforts at the Amazon Bessemer Alabama facility and the Amazon JFK8 fulfillment center. In a small organization, a single salt is effective, like Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes scholar who took a job at a New York Starbucks store primarily to start a union campaign. In a larger organization, it takes more than one salt. 

Recruiting Future Union Salts

Since unions are always ready to pounce when detecting unhappiness in a workforce, they came up with a new approach. They are recruiting salts among recent college graduates so that the recruits can develop their skills as union organizers in the workplace. Unions target people who were activists in college, and once trained, salts will apply for low-skill jobs in the services industries like retail, hospitality, and logistics. The Young Democratic Socialists of America have made over 40 presentations on college campuses to generate interest in salting or taking jobs with the intent to unionize the workforce. 

The story of salts is one of disruption, so they keep a very low profile to avoid detection. Sometimes salts are willing to be interviewed anonymously, and what they say is of vital importance to employers who want to avoid unionization. Combine this with the use of social media for virtual union organizing, and it's no secret that salting can pose a problem for employers. 

The blog "Working In These Times" shares insights offered by millennial salts who used pseudonyms to hide their real identities and places of employment. During the interviews, it was made clear that salts are focused on causing trouble in the workplace. They use phrases like "maintain a level of militancy," "march on the boss" and "harass the managers till they hired me." Millennial salts also talk about feeling righteous, feeling a taste of power when they see fear in the eyes of employers, and feeling "clean" about purposely starting a lot of trouble in the workplace. The salts interviewed worked on shop floors, as sales clerks, and at places like Starbucks.

In the book "Playing Against the House: The Dramatic World of an Undercover Union Organizer," author James Walsh discusses his job as a salt at casinos. He first heard about salting in college because some friends salted hotels as room service attendants and bellmen. Walsh eventually organized workers at two Florida casinos — Mardi Gras and Calder. He described how salting works.

Salts build leadership committees that have sway with coworkers and are willing to confront managers about worker issues. Walsh spent as much time as he could with coworkers outside of work to get to know them, participating in many activities so that he could identify potential leaders. He also observed people at work to see who stood up to managers, marking them as potential allies. Walsh seldom discussed unions while at work as a buffet server and bartender. 

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Role of Recruiters and Hiring Managers in Identifying Salts

Many employers are unfamiliar with the union salting practice. Identifying specific people as salts is difficult if they are extremely careful about hiding their role. Some salts don't conceal their union affiliation because they know the NLRA protects them. They know employers can't refuse to hire someone because of union affiliation or being a union sympathizer. Should you refuse to hire the person, an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) will be filed based on discrimination. The NLRB would force you to hire the person and maybe pay lost back wages. 

There are ways to combat a planned salting campaign. They primarily fall into two categories: 1.) follow employment laws, and 2.) develop an organizational culture and leadership team that negate the need for a union in employees' minds. 

The first category of anti-salting strategies are things every employer should develop or do in any hiring situation and within the law. You can look for clues that a job applicant is pro-union and might be a salt. For example, the resume shows a history of positions with only unionized companies. Your leader cannot ask a job applicant about their union associations or volunteer work with labor organizations because that could lead to an NLRB complaint. Recruiters and hiring managers can listen carefully for union terminology used during the interview. However, a competent salt has been carefully trained by the union to not make these kinds of mistakes. Unions and salts practice answers to hundreds of potential interview questions. For example, a trained salt would not ask a recruiter, "Does your company have a grievance procedure?" The word "grievance" is associated with labor unions. 

You should always check the references of all job applicants to identify potential salts using false employment history. This allows you to find a neutral reason to not hire the person. Your employee handbook section on recruiting and hiring should clarify that the company only hires people with positive feedback from prior employers. Document every conversation held concerning the salt.

Assuming some salts may get hired, the best protection against a salting campaign is to develop positive employee relations by:

  • Creating an engaging, positive company culture
  • Having well-developed, informed leaders who are effective communicators and trained in labor relations
  • Carefully developing employee policies and procedures that ensure non-discriminatory employee decisions are made at hiring and during employment
  • Providing regular employee training on the company's perspective on the negative impact of unionization.
  • Meeting employee needs for recognition, employee voice, fair pay, safe working conditions, and inclusive work experiences

It would be best if you did not give your employees any reason to be interested in joining a union, making the efforts of salts nonproductive.

Employers must be careful to follow employment laws, taking extra precautions to avoid NLRB unfair labor practice (ULP) charges. For example, it is essential to keep accurate employment interview records and ensure there are legally documented reasons for not hiring an applicant. Salts are always ready to cause trouble. 

Salts are not supposed to submit applications without having a sincere intent to gain employment, but with so many millennials and now Gen Z seeking work beneath their education level or relying on low-wage service industry jobs for support, it is more challenging to spot salts bombarding an employer with applications meant to intentionally get rejected. Developing policies and procedures designed to prevent discriminatory management behaviors is critical. There should be an employee handbook with consistent rules concerning hiring, promotion, training, compensation, reporting issues, and so on. 

Best Offense Against Salting: A Culture of Engagement

Plain and simple, here's how to protect your company from being salted by unions: develop a culture where high-performing leaders are excellent communicators and know how to engage and motivate employees daily. Couple this with effective employee training on the consequences of unionization, and your employees will likely have no reason to join a union-organizing campaign.

Communication is key to preventing union organizing. Leaders should be accessible to employees, proactively addressing their needs and concerns, and consistently engaging. Develop the employee voice so that all employees feel valued and their feedback is important.

One of the most important steps you can take as an employer to protect your company from being salted by unions is ensuring employees are well-trained and kept informed. Onboarding begins the process of sharing the company's mission, history, and culture. Additional and ongoing training can cover employee benefits and unionization perspectives. Using a dedicated website, apps, online videos, enterprise social media, and e-learning, managers can communicate with employees regularly concerning many of the favored topics of unions, like safety and management responsiveness. Training can also give employees specific reasons they should avoid unions, such as the fact that employees will have to pay union dues to an organization that is intent on creating a hostile workplace. Don't be afraid to talk to your employees about collective bargaining. 

positive employee relations

Positive Employee Relations

Engaged employees are likelier to let managers and supervisors know a salt has approached them outside of work. Leadership training on building morale, developing trust, giving praise and recognition, and setting realistic goals is often overlooked to the company's detriment. People at the top must depend on the frontline managers to strengthen teams and build a positive company culture. 

A salt will quickly detect problems, like frustrated employees who believe their managers do not care about them as people and are not to be trusted. Case in point: The salt who worked at Starbucks claims the managers treated him like a robot, so he enjoyed trying to unionize the business behind the manager's back. 

Employers in the services, healthcare, and restaurant and fast food industries can expect unions to double their salting efforts because they are desperate to find new sources of union members, especially while a pro-union government is supporting them. Many millennials and Gen Z are amenable to unions because unions help them feel more in control of their destiny in a feeble economy that drives them to lower-paying jobs. To know how to protect your company from being salted by unions, employers in all services industries should know the current salting practices and expect union efforts to continue reaching into services sectors, like computer services, to grow. Making a union unnecessary is possible, but only by staying on top of union practices and knowing how to respond should there be signs of an organizing attempt. 

Are you concerned about salting in your organization? IRI Consultants is here to help you solve your unique needs. Our team of experts can help you recognize salting and understand legal do's and don'ts. Get help with salting by contacting IRI Consultants.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.

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