Gawker recently obtained the audiotape of a captive audience meeting at a firm in Georgia where truckers are trying to organize a union. Anti-union employers often hold these mandatory meetings, where they subject employees to extended lectures on the evils and ills of unionization.
As captive audience meetings go, this one is relatively benign. The workers speak up, some voice tentative pro-union sympathy, there’s a back and forth, there’s little intimidation, not even of the more informal or implicit variety. That’s often not the case.
Even so, the tape has some creepy moments that reveal the paternalism of management’s opposition to unions and its treatment of workers more generally.
Early in the tape, a manager tells the workers:
We have the right to educate you and we’re going to exercise that right.
Set aside the assumption that management is a wise teacher; the worker, an ignorant student.
There’s a menacing quality to the statement, which is peculiar if you think about it. The right to an education is usually invoked by and on behalf of students, not teachers. It’s a claim to agency by the powerless, not an assertion of prerogative by the powerful. It references an active process—as much as they demand to be educated, so do students promise to educate themselves. Here, however, education denotes an entirely passive process, where the teacher crams information down the student’s throat.
Perhaps that’s why one worker slyly raises his hand to ask, “And those of us who choose not to be educated?” As if he’s talking about root canal or some experimental surgery.
Later on in the tape, another manager says of the captive audience meeting and the “facts” they’re giving the workers:
This truly is for your best interests.
Libertarians and conservatives like to claim that unions violate not only the freedom of the individual but also her dignity and autonomy. That’s because, the argument goes, the union (and its allies in government) presumes to know better than the individual worker what is or is not in her interests. It’s the nanny and the nanny state.
Yet as the tape reveals, it’s management who truly makes that claim. Sometimes explicitly, as is the case here, sometimes implicitly. What, after all, is the premise, if not the point, of the captive audience meeting other than that the worker is not in a position to know what’s good for her?
Captive audience meetings don’t dwell on how a union will hurt management, though there’s that, too. (At one point, a manager tells the workers, “You mentioned for me guys and I know a couple of you all say don’t take it personally. I can’t help take it personally…It does hurt, it does sting.”)
No, the purpose of the meeting is to explain to workers how a union will hurt them. Because they’re not educated, see?