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labor The Undercover Organizers Behind America’s Union Wins

Activists known as “salts” have been a key to recent successful organizing campaigns. And they say they’re just getting started.

Targeting Starbucks, Amazon.com and other big employers, the Insider Organizing School is reviving a century-old tactic by training organizers in the practice of "salting," secretively joining a workplace with the aim of helping workers establish a union.,Karyn Christner/Flickr/Creative Commons

If you want to unionize a workplace, Will Westlake was saying, get used to unclogging the drains. At a secret off-hours gathering held in Rochester, New York, in March, the 25-year-old former barista told a few dozen labor activists that a great way to build trust with co-workers and bosses is to volunteer for thankless chores. In his case, that meant spending months at a Starbucks outside Buffalo in 2021 getting on his knees and reaching beneath the sinks to yank loose the grimy mix of mocha chips, espresso beans, congealed milk and rotten fruit that regularly stopped things up. “Be the person who’s willing,” Westlake said. “It’s going to make the company less suspicious of you.”

The proof, he told the crowd, came toward the end of 2021, after baristas at his Starbucks and others in the area had filed federal petitions to hold union elections. Executives and managers arrived from across the country to work shifts at the cafes and conduct mandatory meetings about the potential dangers of organizing. According to Westlake, the then-president of Starbucks Corp.’s North American division personally warned at least one new hire at his store to be careful about trusting other staffers, naming several baristas she suspected of being covert union operatives. Confused and distressed, the hire called up a trusted colleague that the big boss hadn’t named: Westlake. (Starbucks has denied all claims of anti-union activity at its shops.)

The practice of joining a workplace with the secret aim of organizing it is called “salting.” Westlake was addressing recruits at the Inside Organizer School, a workshop held a couple times a year by a loose confederation of labor organizers. At these meetups, experienced activists train other attendees in the art of going undercover. Speakers lecture and lead discussions on how to pass employer screenings, forge relationships with co-workers and process the complicated feelings that can accompany a double life. Most salts are volunteers, not paid union officials, but unions sometimes fund their housing or, later, tap them for full-time jobs. Workers United, the Service Employees International Union affiliate that’s home to the new Starbucks union, hired Westlake as an organizer around the time the coffee chain fired him last fall.

Through interviews and exclusive visits to undercover training sessions over the past year, Bloomberg Businessweek got an unparalleled look at the revival of American salting, which has been around for a century. Until now, salts have been the mostly secret ingredient in a once-in-a-generation wave of union organizing that’s spread from Starbucks and Amazon.com Inc. to other Fortune 500 companies in the Covid-19 era. At least 10 undercover activists, including Westlake, landed jobs at Starbucks cafes in the Buffalo area, where they quietly laid the groundwork for the first successful organizing campaign among the company’s US employees in decades. That victory inspired hundreds more successful union votes at Starbucks and other companies. Early on, a group of six salts made up half the organizing committee for the Amazon Labor Union that won an election at an 8,000-person warehouse in the Staten Island borough of New York last spring. “They didn’t make or break us, but they were definitely helpful,” says the Amazon campaign’s most prominent organizer, Christian Smalls.

High-profile wins have helped fuel salt recruiting. Last year, thousands of members of the Democratic Socialists of America said in an internal survey that they were interested in pursuing jobs in workplaces that would also be strategic targets for organizing. “Salting is really important and will definitely play a part in a lot of these upcoming battles,” says Atulya Dora-Laskey, a 23-year-old DSA member and Chipotle employee who helped lead the Mexican food chain’s first-ever union success. Dora-Laskey says that he wasn’t thinking about organizing until after he got hired, but that his victory has helped lead salts to take jobs at other Chipotles and that he’s advising them on their campaigns.

Interest in salting has been buoyed by a tight labor market and a broader resurgence in left-wing activism, especially among Gen Z. Some salts come from relatively privileged backgrounds—meaning they can better afford to get fired—but others are working-class people who go undercover at the sorts of jobs they’ve already been doing. Westlake was working full time as a barista to save money for college in 2017 when Workers United guided him through unionizing his first cafe before helping him do the same thing at other shops. His mother was a restaurant manager who didn’t have health insurance and died of cancer when he was 14 years old. “That’s been a big part of why I’ve gotten involved,” he says.

The resurgence of salting also reflects the desperation of the American labor movement. Workers who don’t remember Sept. 11 can scarcely imagine a time when collective bargaining was the norm. Union representation as a share of the US workforce peaked in 1954, and after decades of decline, it now sits at a record low 6% of the private sector. US productivity rose by two-thirds from 1974 to 2018, but average inflation-adjusted wages hardly budged.

Still, companies also seem to recognize that they’re more vulnerable to organizing tactics like salting than they thought. While the practice is legal, business groups are urging leaders in the House of Representatives, where Republicans regained control in January, to pass a law that would make it easier to reject or fire workers who are found to be salts. “There is a basic duty of loyalty that employees have to their employer,” says Roger King, a senior counsel for the HR Policy Association, a trade group.

Starbucks and other companies have also sought to dismiss any unionization effort involving undercover organizers as illegitimate. Howard Schultz, the coffee chain’s iconic three-time chief executive officer, stressed in his March 29 testimony to the Senate labor committee that the key organizer at his company was also on a union’s payroll. “If that’s not a nefarious act, I don’t know what is,” he said. Schultz, who retook the CEO job on an interim basis last year as the union votes multiplied, stepped down slightly ahead of schedule on March 20 amid growing scrutiny of the company. The committee chair, Bernie Sanders, had threatened to subpoena Schultz to appear at the hearing, an investigation of alleged illegal union-busting at Starbucks.

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In a statement, Workers United President Lynne Fox noted that the campaign has spread far beyond Buffalo, and said her union represents more than 8,000 Starbucks employees so far. “Workers United is proud to stand with all of those workers, and the thousands more that will join them in the coming months,” she said.

Salting can backfire when it leaves potential union supporters feeling manipulated. Some workers who’ve stood up to organize with salts’ backing have gotten fired. But salts say they’re not forcing unionization on anyone—they’re just showing people that it’s possible and how it can be done. While Westlake acknowledges that salting gets awkward, he bristles at the idea that salts aren’t loyal or dedicated enough to count as real workers. He says that he’s poured a whole lot more coffee than the Starbucks higher-ups who flew to Buffalo to talk about the dangers of unions and that he spent weeks laid up with a pinched nerve after all his drain-unclogging. “I don’t think executives should really be throwing stones,” he says. “Who’s more of a fake worker than them?”

Secret Union Tactic Fuels Unprecedented Labor Wins

Salting draws its name from a bygone form of fraud: sprinkling gold in a spent mine to trick someone into buying it. Over the past century, salts have gone to work in just about every US industry, sometimes calling the practice “industrializing” or, more awkwardly, “colonization.” Stories from salting’s previous peak, circa the Great Depression, have been a touchstone of Inside Organizer School workshops since a pair of longtime organizers, Richard Bensinger and Chris Townsend, began holding them in 2018. Those tales, like one salt’s account of swapping names and haircuts to keep getting hired at the same 1930s stockyard, have remained a fixture now that Bensinger’s protégé, 25-year-old Workers United organizer Jaz Brisack, is largely spearheading the trainings.

Brisack, who spent their home-schooled teenage years in Tennessee working at Panera Bread, had been waiting a long time to salt somewhere. They’d defied their Christian fundamentalist parents by renouncing religion, and the labor movement offered an outlet for rebellion and a stand-in for the sense of community and greater purpose that faith used to provide. While they were studying public policy at the University of Mississippi, a professor introduced them to Bensinger. Brisack began assisting Bensinger’s efforts to organize a nearby Nissan Motor Co. plant and then, during breaks from their Rhodes scholarship in 2019, at a series of coffee shops in upstate New York.

The first Starbucks employee Brisack met with about gauging support for a union quickly got fired. After that, Brisack says, “I had a grudge.” When they returned to the US from the UK in 2020, the upstate New York chapter of Workers United hired Brisack as its organizing director. That December, Starbucks, none the wiser, brought Brisack on as a barista. Their union office in Rochester sat mostly empty for the following year, the nameplate on the door reversed to hide their name. After a couple of months picking up shifts at Starbucks around Buffalo along with another salt, Brisack was confident that the stores could be organized and that the task would require more backup. The union recruited Starbucks salts through the Inside Organizer School, friends of friends and a cryptic online job posting for “Project Germinal,” named for Emile Zola’s novel about labor strife in French coal mines.

When applying for jobs at Starbucks, the salts would lay it on thick. “When she wasn’t at work, my mother was running down Franklin Street in Syracuse to get a grande iced coffee, no sugar, and one-inch room for cream,” Westlake wrote in his cover letter. “She taught me that the efficiency and quality that Starbucks offers is unlike any other cafe.” (This was a half-truth, he says: “My mom hated Starbucks, but she did really love coffee.”) He also told his interviewer that he would report any colleague he heard complaining about working conditions and that he hoped eventually to ascend to management. Another Starbucks salt, Arjae Rebmann, spent their job interview with their arms crossed or at their side, so the manager wouldn’t notice the hammer-and-sickle tattoo on their left wrist.

With Covid raging, Brisack convened salt training sessions over Zoom, discussing how to get hired and how to make friends. Starbucks salts hosted brunches, gave thoughtful birthday gifts and boned up on their co-workers’ favorite TV shows. Westlake says he changed his look partly to make it more obvious he wasn’t a straight dude and to help his mostly female co-workers feel more comfortable around him. Another salt, Zachary Field, dug into astrology because it was popular with his fellow baristas. When he told them he was a Scorpio, more than one said that was weird—he didn’t seem like the secretive type.

Field and Westlake lived in a group house with a couple more salts. That crew avoided hosting co-workers or even bringing home dates. Instead, some of them hung up pictures of Karl Marx and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, and the group used flashcards to quiz each other on Starbucks recipes and compared notes with other salts on which co-workers could be key to a successful union drive.

Westlake chose Gianna Reeve, a charismatic and sardonic Buffalo native. At 20, Reeve was a shift leader who commanded respect from baristas and bosses. She encouraged baristas to take bathroom breaks whenever they needed, and she wasn’t shy about bad-mouthing corporate. In the summer of 2021, each salt broached the subject of organizing with a co-worker, asking them to meet up outside of work. Reeve says she thought Westlake might be asking her out on a date, but she’d been reading about the industry’s labor unrest on Reddit and wasn’t shocked when the subject of unions came up. Westlake told her he’d heard about the movement from someone who’d helped organize his last coffee shop, asking if he wanted to be involved in a new union campaign.

Reeve, whose dad was a United Auto Workers member, replied that she was all for the idea as long as it wouldn’t get her fired. Westlake didn’t tell her that he’d been dismissed from the first coffee chain where he led a union drive. He gave her tips on organizing more support, and she helped him figure out who else to ask. Other pairs at other cafes did the same, and by the end of August, Workers United had sent an open letter from 50 Buffalo-area employees to the company’s CEO and begun filing for union elections at several shops.

Workers say Starbucks quickly dispatched extra managers to suss out union sympathizers and hold mandatory meetings warning that unionization could cost them their benefits. In November, it sent in Schultz, who’d retired, to win back wayward baristas. During a speech in the ballroom of Buffalo’s downtown Hyatt Regency, he told several dozen staffers about his upbringing in public housing in the Brooklyn borough of New York, his care for the extended Starbucks family and the perks the company had already delivered. Starbucks workers from across the country say this meeting also led to one of the most galvanizing moments for the organizing campaign, in which Reeve challenged Schultz to sign a pledge against union-busting and Schultz ducked out the back door instead. (A Starbucks spokesperson says Schultz visited to reconnect with employees and share the company’s values.)

Unbeknown to Reeve, four salts had helped lead her to that moment. Westlake had recruited her. At the Hyatt, Brisack riled Reeve by describing how the management rep checking names at the door insisted on using the legal names for trans and nonbinary employees instead of their chosen ones. Another salt, Casey Moore, gave Reeve a copy of Workers United’s anti-union-busting pledge and suggested confronting Schultz with it. As Schultz was wrapping up, Reeve turned to James Skretta, a salt seated next to her in the front row, and whispered, “Should I do this?” Skretta nodded and whispered back, “If you stand up, I’ll stand up with you.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without Jaz, without Casey, without Will, without James,” Reeve says now. “They basically reset my life trajectory.” She says she was unfazed to learn they were all undercover.

During the confrontation, several executives awkwardly circled Reeve while Schultz exited and she declared, “The strength we have is our strength with each other.” Video of the incident ricocheted around the internet, and employees who’d been avoiding engaging with the pro-union camp say it helped lead them to reconsider. A year and change later, staffers at 367 of Starbucks’s roughly 9,000 corporate-run US locations have held elections, and 296 have voted to unionize. Reeve’s cafe wasn’t one of them, but in early March, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ordered Starbucks to recognize and bargain with the union anyway, owing to what the judge called egregious violations of labor law during the election campaign. Starbucks is appealing the ruling.

Reeve has started attending the Inside Organizer School herself. On a panel at the workshop in March, she said the organizing campaign gave her a new sense of hope. Among the salts-in-training, she was a minor celebrity. Between singalongs to Lady Gaga and Rihanna at a nearby Irish pub, a former Tesla worker gushed that Reeve’s showdown with Schultz was an inspiration. “It was badass of you to do that,” she said. “I was scared shitless,” Reeve replied. “It was just adrenaline.” The next morning, during a session in which retail and flight attendant union organizers portrayed managers in a mock anti-union meeting, one barista texted another “LETS REENACT GIANNA,” and they did.

From the start, these training camps have been designed both to attract prospective salts and to hone existing employees’ organizing skills. The March session opened with an icebreaker: Participants introduced themselves by describing the most outrageous thing a boss had told them. The next couple of days included a presentation called “TikTok as Class Struggle,” a role-playing session about raising the idea of a union with co-workers, a panel discussion about trans rights in the workplace and a closing presentation from Amazon salts in Canada. Presenters shared tips on documenting illegal threats from management and using divorce records to find out how much certain executives make. During breaks, participants did yoga, ate barbecue and joked about unionizing their dogs.

Several presentations made the case for the necessity of salting in the context of organizing’s steep challenges. A Buffalo barista said she’d spent months loudly opposing unionization in part because she feared getting fired and believed she’d be promoted if she fought the campaign. Townsend, the training camp co-founder, looking Santa-esque in a red cap and suspenders, told the crowd, “Repeat after me: The workplace today is a dictatorship.” During a session about writing cover letters and acing job interviews, Brisack emphasized the value of sounding like a snitch. They shared a list of screening questions they said were used by leading service industry companies, including “Do your emotions ever affect your work?” and “Would you turn in an employee you caught stealing a candy bar?”

America’s labor organizers have reason to be secretive. In the US, it’s illegal to fire employees for trying to unionize, but the penalties are minor and can take years to litigate, so bosses have every incentive to do so. A former Starbucks store manager in Buffalo testified at a labor board hearing last year that higher-ups gave him a list of pro-union employees and told him to find ways to punish them. NLRB prosecutors have accused Starbucks of terminating more than 40 employees in retaliation for organizing. (The company denies this.)

Yet while salts rarely express regrets about misleading a boss, several say they wish they’d been more forthright once their union drives went public. “It was difficult,” says Skretta, who invented a story about a significant other in med school to explain the recent move to Buffalo. “Exercising more trust in the leaders at an earlier stage wouldn’t have been harmful.”

More than a few workers have said they’ve felt burned after finding out their co-workers were salts. “It’s very unsettling, because some of these people I thought were my friends,” Buffalo-area Starbucks barista Hannah Scott told Businessweek last year. “It was very scheme-y.” Another employee there, Taylor Shaw, said after learning about Brisack’s prior work with Workers United that Brisack was just thinking of their union career and not the other baristas.

At Amazon, where salts were more open with co-workers about their roles in the union campaign on Staten Island, their intentions were thrown back in their faces more than once, according to one of them, Justine Medina. “There would be disagreements on tactical things,” she says. And then would come the trump card: “You’re just a salt.” But hard work helped win over her peers. “I was unemployed, I needed a job, but I also wanted a union,” she says. “As long as I work at Amazon, I’m an Amazon worker.”

Salts say some amount of subterfuge is unavoidable while activists are vulnerable to retaliation. “I don’t think we should be apologetic about it,” says Brisack, who advocates fighting companies “by any means necessary” and is writing a book about the Starbucks campaign. Brisack says their biggest regret is that they haven’t always been able to protect workers or to predict what Starbucks would do next. They mentioned Cassie Fleischer, one of the employees the NLRB alleges the company terminated illegally. “The one thing I do feel guilty about is that I told Cassie she wouldn’t get fired,” Brisack says. “I said, ‘They’re not going to do that.’ And then, yeah, that was not true.”

The Inside Organizer School remains a loosely organized confab, not some formal union body, but its leaders say they aim to start holding workshops every other month and to spread some of them across the country. “I don’t think there’s any company that you couldn’t salt,” says Brisack. Townsend says he sees potential in industries that employ a lot of downwardly mobile college graduates, like education and entertainment, as well as the service and technology industries, adding that he’d also like to see more recruits who, like him, never went to college. Activists have also been getting themselves hired at high-profile union shops where they hope to influence upcoming labor battles, including at United Parcel Service Inc., which is facing a potential strike this summer.

To reduce the risk of hiring salts, companies might be screening job applicants more carefully. “It would be nice if a recruiter could ask, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a union member?’ ” anti-union consultant Walter Orechwa wrote in a 2022 research note. “Unfortunately, that is not legal.” He advised hiring managers to select candidates with exclusively positive feedback from past employers. His firm, IRI Consultants, has worked with Alphabet Inc.and, according to the California Nurses Association, the hospital affiliate of Stanford University.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a potential Republican presidential candidate, teamed with Representative Rick Allen of Georgia, another Republican, to introduce a bill last year that would make it easier to fire salts. The bill would legalize refusing work to anyone “who seeks or has sought employment with the employer in furtherance of other employment or membership in a labor organization.” Its endorsers include the National Restaurant Association, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Even for many fierce union advocates, undercover work remains a tough sell, and some salts say the secrecy was lonely and draining. Many Starbucks salts and co-workers, however, say the undercover organizing changed them for the better. Reeve, who was planning to become a social worker after getting her psychology degree, now says she wants a career in organizing instead. Field, who’s now a grad student studying water policy, says he’d salt again: “This is the only cool thing I’ve done in my life.”

After Westlake’s presentation on Saturday afternoon, a fortysomething man in blue jeans and a black hoodie told the salts-in-training about what it’s been like to do the work on and off for years. He’s worked the front desk and waited tables at hotels in California, sold bagels at a university in Washington, DC, cleaned toilets at a makeup factory in Pennsylvania and dried hospital sheets at an industrial laundry in New York. He tried to give up the life and teach middle school history but decided he preferred the undercover work.

“I wanted to change the world,” said the man, who requested anonymity because he may salt again. “Am I a guy slamming my head against a brick wall? Or is that wall part of a prison we’re all living in, and I’m breaking out? Maybe both.”