Inside Corporate America’s Favorite ‘Union-Busting’ Firm

The Labor Relations Institute links employers up with the “persuaders” who thwart union organizing campaigns.

TULSA, Okla. ― The nexus of the “union avoidance” consulting industry sits in a row of strip malls in the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow, between a dog-grooming service and a smoky bar. The blue sign above the door says “LRI,” short for the Labor Relations Institute, a lofty moniker that suggests an organization abuzz with researchers. But LRI is not an institute so much as a profitable business built on subcontracting.

LRI acts as a clearinghouse that links up employers with the “persuaders” who help thwart union organizing campaigns ― work that labor groups call “union busting.” It is the firm that some of America’s most recognizable companies have turned to when their workers are considering forming a union. Its clients have included the food-service conglomerates Aramark and Sysco; candy company Hershey; pharma giant Pfizer; poultry processor Mountaire Farms; ink producer Sun Chemical; and retailers like Dollar General, Lowe’s and Williams-Sonoma, according to federal disclosure filings.

Employers often pay $400 per hour or more to have a single labor consultant countering a union campaign.

Employers often pay $400 per hour or more to have a single labor consultant countering a union campaign. The real work is done inside the workplace, but making money doesn’t necessarily require going out in the field and speaking to workers ― the assignments can be subcontracted to other consultants who are registered as LLCs. Such is the business model of LRI.

LRI is run by Phillip Wilson, a University of Michigan Law School graduate who sometimes appears at human-resources conferences or gets quoted in the news speaking on labor issues.

Over the years, Wilson’s menu of services has ranged from à la carte videos and opposition research to a “guaranteed option” that requires a minimum $50,000 deposit and assures the union will fail.

It is not clear how many employees Wilson has at LRI. He has referred to himself as the “president, general counsel and occasional barista” for the firm. He did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story, or a detailed list of questions sent before publication.

Persuaders who have gotten jobs through Wilson describe him as a nice guy who brings in a lot of work for his subcontractors. Bob Funk, a former union employee who now runs a nonprofit watchdog called LaborLab, called Wilson a “figurehead” for the industry who makes a controversial line of work seem more palatable. Wilson’s polish gives no hint of how vicious anti-union campaigns can be, according to Funk.

“I think most of the industry wants him to be that person,” Funk said. “You look at his profile, he seems like a pretty upstanding guy. He’s really well spoken, and he comes off as really reasonable. But he is making millions of dollars doing this.”

Although the persuader industry is regulated by the Labor Department, it’s difficult to say accurately how much money firms like LRI bring in. Employers paid LRI more than $10 million for persuader work between 2020 and 2022, according to an analysis of annual disclosure forms. But that figure only includes what employers self-reported to the government. Many companies fail to disclose their spending even though it’s required under law, so it’s likely that LRI’s receipts were higher in that time period.

Business seems to be getting better as more workers try to unionize. An analysis of LRI’s disclosures shows the firm’s payments to its persuaders increased by 29% in 2021, then by another 19% in 2022, tracking with a rise in union election petitions filed by workers. Funk said more employers seem to be hiring the likes of LRI before their workers even request an election, perhaps because they see successful organizing happening at big-name companies like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. Americans’ approval of labor unions now stands at a 57-year high.

Wilson likes to speak of LRI’s work using the language of positive employee relations. He’s boasted that his firm has “helped improve relationships between managers and their employees in over 10,000 different companies.” But notes and spreadsheets obtained through public record requests show LRI subcontractors rating individual workers on their union support, sharing details from workers’ personal lives and strategizing about how best to turn them against the idea of a union.

Ryan Coffel, who helped lead a union campaign at the Midwestern chain Colectivo Coffee in 2021, said LRI’s consultants brought new tensions to his workplace. He said baristas were required to sit through meetings in which all the information seemed slanted against the union.

“They don’t blatantly lie. They just bend the truth.”

–Worker Ryan Coffel on the consultants he encountered

“They don’t blatantly lie. They just bend the truth,” said Coffel, a former cafe shift leader. “People were frustrated with these meetings. It just became more of like a war of attrition.”

Shellie Parsons, who tried unsuccessfully to unionize her Dollar General store in Connecticut in 2021, told HuffPost after the vote that LRI consultants had trailed employees as they did their duties. The union lost the election 2-3.

“They were following us,” Parsons said. “They just scared everybody.”

I Get My Marching Orders’

LRI was founded by Wilson’s father, Donald, in 1978, according to the younger Wilson. On corporate papers filed with the state of Oklahoma in 1996, Donald Wilson wrote that LRI’s business purpose was to “manufacture and market video tapes” about labor relations, though the filings made no mention of labor unions. The firm sold its products to employers facing union campaigns, and it was highly aggressive in its marketing tactics, according to National Labor Relations Board files.

In 1998, the labor board’s office of the general counsel sent a warning to staff that LRI consultants were “soliciting” leads on union campaigns from the agency’s federal employees. The memo said that in some cases they had “offered compensation in return for the receipt of such information,” rather than filing requests for public records. Employees were told it was an ethical violation to accept such payments and that the matter had been referred to the agency’s inspector general.

The inspector general sent the troubling results of that investigation to Congress later that year. LRI had been recruiting federal workers as “coordinators” who would send LRI information on the latest union election petitions via fax. LRI was paying secretaries and clerical workers inside the agency a monthl for their services, plus a bonus for each election petition they sent, according to the inspector general.

If LRI succeeded in selling its business to the employer facing a union drive, the coordinator got another bonus. LRI also gave the workers movie and meal tickets and other gifts.

“Evidence indicates that LRI and coordinators frequently arranged for payments to be split into several names, or made out to a friend or relative of the coordinator, to conceal the payments, to avoid the issuance of a 1099, and allow the coordinator to evade federal and state income taxes,” the inspector general wrote.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the investigation after a subpoena of LRI’s bank records showed the “substantial involvement” of board employees, but the U.S. attorney’s office ultimately declined to pursue a case, according to the report. The investigation found that some board employees had been working for LRI on the side for years. (On his LinkedIn page, Phillip Wilson says he joined his father’s firm in 1998, the year the inspector general issued its report.)

As the inspector general noted, LRI was known for giving subscribers access to its online database loaded with information on unions, before the information was more readily available on the labor board’s website. Brent Yessin, a longtime labor consultant who competed with LRI, once said in a 2014 civil deposition that the firm’s products were subpar, but it excelled at drumming up business.

“Their research isn’t very good. Their films aren’t very good,” Yessin said. “But they have a great database so they send out gazillions of letters every time [an employer] gets a petition. … They get work.”

Few union avoidance firms could boast working as many union campaigns or having as large a network of persuaders as LRI.

Few union avoidance firms could boast working as many anti-union campaigns or having as large a network of persuaders as LRI. A representative once testified before the labor board that the firm had 84 former union organizers working as consultants, a figure that could not be confirmed. LRI has sometimes served as a first stop for persuaders new to the business.

Wilson appears to farm out most or all of the on-the-ground work. The subcontracting arrangement, which is common in the industry, can make it difficult to track how much ends up in the pockets of the persuaders themselves, as opposed to intermediaries like LRI. Payment figures submitted as part of a 2015 civil lawsuit in Delaware show LRI splitting the employer’s fees 50-50 with its consultant (LRI was not a party to the suit).

By handling the administrative work, LRI appears to free up the persuaders to focus on their end: swaying workers to vote against the union. As one LRI consultant testified during a 2012 labor board hearing, “I get my marching orders and I let the bosses deal with the contracts.”

The ‘Captive’ Audience

Over the years, thousands of workers have encountered LRI’s consultants in what are known as “captive audience” meetings. These are mandatory talks, either in groups or one on one, where persuaders generally deliver anti-union talking points. But these interactions can serve a larger purpose for the persuaders: figuring out where individual workers stand on the union.

Labor board files obtained through public records requests show the extent to which LRI consultants are studying the workforce and probing for employees’ pressure points. Take the case of Western Refining, a petroleum distributor that was the subject of a 19-day NLRB hearing in 2012.

Western Refining hired LRI to help dissuade its truck drivers in New Mexico from joining the Teamsters. Records show LRI’s consultants had spreadsheets that mapped out union support among the facilities. Each worker was graded on a scale of 1 to 5 — 1 being solidly anti-union, 5 being unshakably pro-union. The consultants put much of their energies toward those in the 3 column ― fence-sitters who could go either way.

It’s standard practice for union organizers to evaluate workers on their own end, but with a crucial difference: Only the employer enjoys guaranteed access to the voters. At Western Refining, the persuasion came in the form of group meetings, one-on-one chats and on-the-job ride-alongs with LRI consultants, according to labor board files.

“Today i will be riding with some of the workers who need ‘special’ attention,” one persuader wrote in her notes. “They have either been classified as on the fence or they are #2 who need a little push to be open non union supporters.”

The consultants added notes about each worker: “synical in meet. Says no respect, no voice.” “out on disability, broken leg.” “worried about aftermath for signing a card.” The consultants would write up detailed reports on each driver, weighing their evaluations against those made by their fellow persuaders.

One consultant assessed a driver for the company’s Albuquerque facility and advised on how to turn him against the union: “Some have him as a four. I see him a true 3. He knows very little about the union and just came from a company that went under. So any discussions of the union’s history of impacting business and job security during a petition campaign will swing him to a solid 2.”

The consultant said the personal circumstances of another worker could make him easier to coax: “He is 47 years old and was born and raised a stone throws away from the Western facility. He lives in the NE side of town [and] has an eleven year old at home. He is looking at what would assure him of job security. I think he is a genuine 3 but with extensive education and one on one persuading he should be a 2.”

But the consultant seemed most concerned with an Albuquerque-based driver who professed to be against the union. He suspected this worker was a secret union supporter: “If a petition is filed and a campaign is started he will need to be managed and early tested by giving him false information that should appear in the union’s propaganda.”

The union accused Western Refining and LRI’s consultants of repeatedly breaking the law during the campaign, leading to a trial at the labor board. During their testimony, the consultants downplayed the nature of their work.

The consultant who said some workers needed “special attention” claimed she was doing the ride-alongs primarily to learn about trucking: “What I wanted to do was just get to know more about the industry and what it is that they do.”

Another LRI consultant gave testimony that appeared to conflict with his own emails that had been submitted as exhibits. The judge deemed him “a witness who would conform his testimony to whatever would please his customer.”

The judge found that one of LRI’s consultants broke the law by “soliciting grievances” from workers and making promises if they chose not to unionize, as well as carrying out “an unlawful interrogation.” The employer was ordered to read a notice to workers about their rights and offer back pay to workers who were wrongfully suspended. LRI faced no penalties.

For years unions have wanted to see “captive audience” meetings banned. They might finally get their wish.

An ‘Inherent’ Threat

Unions believe mandatory meetings like the ones at Western Refining make it much more difficult for workers to organize. For years they have wanted to see the meetings banned. They might get their wish, thanks to a case involving LRI’s persuaders.

In 2018, the Mexican-owned ready-mix concrete company Cemex hired LRI to blunt a union effort among its truck drivers in Nevada and California. Cemex spent more than $1.1 million on LRI’s work. Following a bitter campaign, the union narrowly lost the election, with workers voting 179-166 against joining the Teamsters. But a judge later ruled that the company had committed “extraordinary violations,” and that one of LRI’s persuaders ― a man the judge found “not credible” as a witness ― had illegally threatened workers with layoffs.

“Every time we had a meeting … it was always just to talk down about the union and why we should not vote for the union, and how they were going to take our [money],” one Cemex driver recalled during a hearing.

The Cemex hearing was conducted via Zoom due to the pandemic. One of LRI’s persuaders appeared to be tuning in for his testimony from somewhere in the Caribbean. He apologized to the judge for the background noise.

“I’m on a small island in the Caribbean and I live right across the street from an airstrip, and there’s also a lot of roosters outside,” he said, according to hearing transcripts obtained through a records request.

The labor board’s general counsel filed a lengthy brief in the case that caused a stir among labor lawyers. She argued that mandatory anti-union meetings should be illegal. She also said Cemex should have to bargain with the union because the company broke the law and had no good-faith reason to doubt a majority of the workers wanted to unionize.

If those arguments hold up before the five-member labor board in Washington ― and survive legal challenges that may follow ― the case could alter precedent and make it easier for workers to form unions. It could also forbid employers and consultants around the country from forcing workers into anti-union meetings.

The general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, said in an interview that mandatory meetings like the ones held by LRI consultants are “inherently coercive.”

“There is a threat… It’s inherent because these workers are economically dependent upon their employer.”

– NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo

“There is a threat. … It’s inherent because these workers are economically dependent upon their employer,” said Abruzzo, who was appointed by President Joe Biden. “They have no true ability to exercise their right to refrain without fear of some sort of reprisal.”

It’s not clear how such a change would impact the persuader business. Employers may see less value in their services if workers can no longer be required to listen to them. But it’s also possible their work could move more to the background, where they would advise the company and its managers on what to say and do, and have less direct interaction with employees.

For now, the work remains highly profitable, whether the consultants deliver for the employer or not.

At Colectivo Coffee, LRI’s work was not enough to turn baristas against a union. They voted 106-99 in favor of unionizing and ratified their first contract in early June. Coffel, the former employee, said many workers had been seeking raises when they decided to organize. So it was galling to learn that the company had spent nearly $200,000 on LRI’s consultants, according to Labor Department filings.

“How much of that money could have gone to us?” he said.

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