Anatomy of a Captive Audience Meeting

By Jimmy Day

Imagine yourself in middle school as recess lets out. You head straight to the playground to meet your friends but are intercepted by a bigger kid saying you can’t play there anymore. They say if you do, there will be “problems”. At first, shock sets in. Your stomach turns into knots trying to imagine what they meant by “problems”. The kid doesn’t make any official rules for the playground and they don’t say what specific harm they would do to you. So why are you so paralyzed by fear and uncertainty?

Although most workplaces are far from playgrounds, the tactics management uses to scare their workers from unionizing isn’t. Fear is one of the primary methods union avoidance lawyers teach management to scare workers into believing unions will bring them problems. Captive audience meetings, among other tactics, are used by management to channel anti-union messaging into thousands of workplaces every year. These meetings require workers to sit and listen to their bosses for hours as management deploys veiled and less veiled threats, hollow promises, all while casting haunting descriptions of unions and organizers. Research shows that the presence of captive meetings alone can have a significant influence over workers’ chances to win their election and union.

Even when workers are told what to expect from captive audience meetings beforehand, the emotional toll these meetings bring can overwhelm them. Management doesn’t use information as a primary vehicle to pressure workers into voting against their union. They use emotion. Managers cut the paychecks and set the schedules so leaning on their workers’ hopes and fears takes little effort. Unions are disadvantaged in this way because workers don’t have any structural power to challenge the emotional effects of captive audience meetings or other forms of union-busting.

The only advantage workers have are the bonds they form between each other. But there’s another tool that helps diffuse the constant barrage of anti-union messaging coming from management: storytelling. In video form, storytelling condenses key information into small, narrative chapters, and if carefully produced, it can provide a sample experience of the emotional assault anti-union tactics bring. This not only prepares workers to technically identify union-busting tactics, but provides them with a preview of the feeling that management will try to flood them with.

Anatomy of a Captive Audience Meeting is a segment for workers and organizers to experience the emotions of captive audience meetings before the real thing.  This  segment can be sent to workers individually or screened in groups as a starting point for discussion and inoculation. 

It’s unfortunate that more effort is required to combat the immoral and illegal tactics of union-busters, but hopefully Anatomy of a Captive Audience Meeting will serve as another tool to help workers spend their time on something more important than talking about captive audience meetings. 

Spanish translated video: