Digital signage for workplace communications is increasingly common, used for things like safety and benefits notices, training and messages that motivate employees and celebrate accomplishments. It’s a bit different, to say the least, to see the tech used by an employer as a union-busting tool.
Bloomberg is reporting that United Airlines is running anti-union messages on the digital signage network recently installed in cafeterias, loading docks and food production areas of the facilities that produce in-flight food.
Employees at all five of United Continental Holdings Inc.’s kitchens in the U.S. said the screens, installed this year, broadcast a company line urging opposition to hospitality union Unite Here—which is seeking to organize its workers—or touting United’s achievements. Among the messages are warnings about the cost of union dues, the potential for workers to lose benefits if they unionize and the difficulty of getting rid of a union once it’s been voted in. The last point, the workers said, is illustrated with the image of a forearm with a “Together Forever” tattoo.
— Milad Alhir (@MiladAlhir) April 5, 2018
“It’s driving people crazy,” said Maria Villarroel, a 12-year employee who does safety and security inspections at United’s kitchen at Newark International Airport. She said TVs have been broadcasting anti-union messages in the cafeteria, the loading dock and the food production area. “They’re trying to wash people’s brains.”
Now, the union is fighting United’s use of TVs (as seen in the background of a Twitter post featuring airline President J. Scott Kirby) and its allegedly broader campaign against the union—the latest move in an escalating war between them. In a complaint filed Thursday with the National Mediation Board, Unite Here alleged that United has illegally prevented employees from engaging in pro-union activity and subjected pro-union employees to surveillance, harassment and retaliation. The complaint, which claims support by 58 sworn employee declarations, also alleges that United officials conveyed “threats, promises, and misinformation through postings and electronic messages in the workplace,” such as the TV screens, and in small group and one-on-one meetings.
Labor laws can vary by jurisdictions, so I can’t say whether this is an unfair labor practice or just seriously cheeky. The screens are clearly being noticed, so from that aspect they’re working, I suppose.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.