As the coronavirus crisis gained momentum at the end of March, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle made headlines for cutting his annual salary from $954,810 to $10,000. Although the company’s retail stores would temporarily close, Columbia announced that it would continue to pay store workers. The moves landed Boyle on a shortlist of billionaire corporate leaders who made personal compromises in an effort to shield employees from the pandemic’s economic blows. Capitalizing on the good press, Columbia launched a social media campaign called “Tougher Together,” which featured Q&A sessions with athletes and encouraged even the most avid outdoorspeople to stay home.
But the hashtag’s reference to the company’s past “Tested Tough” and “One Tough Mother” advertising campaigns belied the slogan’s origins. Back in December, warehouse workers at Columbia’s Portland, Oregon, distribution center had marched into their manager’s office and delivered a petition demanding that the company remain neutral as they sought to form a union with the Teamsters. The pro-union workers launched a Facebook page the same day. Its title: Tougher Together.
To the union organizers who came up with the slogan, many of whom have continued to work in the warehouse amid the pandemic, Columbia was using the crisis as an opportunity to take a jab at employees who suggested working conditions were less than exemplary.
Boyle’s lauded pay cut also only told half the story. The same day that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued the state’s stay-at-home order, Boyle was scheduled to receive more than $6 million via a quarterly cash dividend on Columbia Sportswear stocks. In fact, his salary represented a tiny proportion of his pay last year, which totaled more than $26 million, according to an analysis for The Intercept by Matt Hopkins of the Academic-Industry Research Network. By comparison, disclosure records indicate that the median income for Columbia workers in 2019 was $27,562. Only after Boyle received his March payout did the company suspend future cash dividends.
Appropriating the workers’ slogan was the latest in a long string of moves Columbia has made to demoralize and intimidate employees into ceasing union organizing, according to several people involved in the effort. Audio recordings provided to The Intercept offer a rare inside look at how a company long considered a pillar of the Pacific Northwest sought to crush workers’ unionization efforts. As the pandemic hit, workers said they felt unprotected by Columbia’s safety measures and left without a voice in an environment where they feared the consequences of raising concerns.
Behind closed doors, Columbia managers discussed sowing discord among employees and building cases for firing those involved in the unionization effort. They called some workers too dumb to know what a union was and made crude jokes about how they could retaliate. Columbia also hired union-busting consultants to spread misleading information among warehouse staff.
By the time the coronavirus crisis became a full-blown pandemic, the unionization effort had been badly damaged. One of the key Tougher Together organizers, a delivery routing specialist named Rory Gatto, was fired based on allegations that he maintains are false. Gatto filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that his firing was retaliatory, but the board dismissed the complaint because of a missed deadline. Four workers interviewed by The Intercept said they viewed the firing as retaliation for Gatto’s union leadership.
Columbia Sportswear did not respond to multiple requests for comment about conditions in the Portland warehouse and other claims made by its employees. Detailed messages to Boyle and the managers who participated in the recorded conversations also went unanswered. When The Intercept called a company number for the senior executive at the warehouse, Vice President of Global Distribution Alonzo Plater, a woman answered and stated, “No comment.”
As the number of daily coronavirus deaths has dropped in some of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S., Columbia is already beginning to lift social distancing precautions it put in place. To workers who feel at risk, the need for a union is greater than ever.
“Having that sense of security, where if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to be scared — we don’t have that right now,” said Ivan Mikhaylov, who has worked at the warehouse for 13 years. “Having the union, people wouldn’t have to be scared to speak up.”
It wasn’t any one problem that led workers at the Portland warehouse to approach the Teamsters, but rather a steady accumulation that lowered their quality of life. Several hundred people from a diverse array of backgrounds work at the warehouse, bringing in bulk shipments of outdoor clothing and repackaging items for wholesale and online orders. It’s a fast-paced environment, where workers are closely monitored by an electronic labor management system that records how efficiently tasks are completed. If workers fail to meet efficiency quotas, they can be disciplined.
What tipped the scale for some were lower-than-expected raises and bonuses and increased health insurance costs. The hourly wages of warehouse employees interviewed by The Intercept ranged from $16 to $20. Given the cost of living in Portland, where median rent for a two-bedroom is around $1,300, the pay falls short of qualifying as a living wage for many workers. Gatto said that it was common for the company to hold school supply and Christmas gift drives for fellow workers, and at one point, information was posted in the dining area about how to find local food banks and housing assistance.
For others, it was a shift from four-day to five-day workweeks that inspired organizing efforts. Mandatory overtime at the warehouse was common, often announced or canceled with little warning, and employees said the scheduling change only made it more difficult to plan for family time or child care.
Furthermore, several workers told The Intercept that pressure from managers for speed and efficiency, combined with the company’s low safety standards and unwillingness to spend money to maintain equipment, made for a dangerous environment. Mikhaylov said that the conveyer belts workers used to move boxes had long been in need of repair or replacement. Another employee, Andrew DeMarrias, said that colleagues concerned about their efficiency quotas often risked injury by clearing jammed conveyer belts themselves, rather than waiting for a maintenance crew.
Until recently, injured workers could not even access first aid supplies, according to current and former employees. In 2015, Gatto told The Intercept, he was moving a pallet when a sliver of wood stabbed his abdomen. He was bleeding and sought to clean and bandage the wound. The first aid kit near his station was nearly empty, as was a second kit he tracked down in another part of the warehouse. Wary that the employee tracking system would show a pause in his task, he said he cleaned up with a paper towel and returned to work. A few days later, he was diagnosed with a staph infection because of the injury.
In the months that followed, Gatto said, he attended company safety meetings and attempted to convince managers to refill the first aid kits. He even volunteered to come up with a tracking system to make sure the materials remained stocked. The effort went nowhere.
By the fall of 2019, a group of workers had begun the union drive with support from the Teamsters. It wasn’t until after organizing began and a worker complained to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the first aid kits were finally filled. An OSHA inspection record shows that a safety complaint was opened at the end of October and closed on December 4.
Alonzo Plater, the most senior executive in the Portland warehouse, called workers into a meeting on October 1. “We’ve started to hear some rumors and conversations around the Teamsters union,” he said, according to audio from the meeting. “I’ve worked in a union environment, and I want to tell you openly my opinion that having a third party like the Teamsters is not what we need here at Columbia.” A group of consultants would be arriving later in the week to educate workers about what unionization meant, he announced.
Union avoidance firms, which exploded in the U.S. in the 1970s, have played a key role in reducing the proportion of private sector workforces that are unionized today. Thomas McKibbin, a Teamsters organizer who has been working with the Columbia employees in Portland, was already familiar with the Crossroads Group before the consultants arrived at the warehouse. The company is run by two former union officials: Michael Penn, an ex-Teamster, and Steve Beyer, former president of a California office of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
Columbia paid Crossroads $400 per hour to “answer employee questions about unions” and communicate with them about their right to organize or refrain from organizing, according to federal disclosure forms, one of which was signed by Boyle.
Jane McAlevey, a longtime labor organizer who has written several books about the labor movement, said coaching workers on what to expect from union avoidance firms like Crossroads has become an essential step for organizers. “If you haven’t been inoculating workers about the employer campaign to come, you’re probably going to be in very, very big trouble once the union buster starts.”
The arrival of the firm caught the Teamsters off guard. “Most companies will act aggressively to stop to an organizing drive,” said McKibbin. “But usually that happens at the end of a campaign, when we’re getting ready to vote in a National Labor Relations Board election. Columbia was very aggressive, very early on.”
Soon after Plater’s announcement, Miko Penn, a senior Crossroads consultant, held a meeting with warehouse staff. In a recording of the meeting provided to The Intercept, Penn suggested that union organizers were tricksters and profiteers who used scams to deceive people into joining. Crossroads President Michael Penn declined to comment on the contents of the session, stating, “We would defer to our client on all of those matters.”
A key part of union organizing involves workers signing union authorization cards. Once workers obtain signed cards from 30 percent of employees, they are allowed to reach out to the National Labor Relations Board to set up an official election. However, in the interest of assuring a win, experienced organizers often encourage workers to wait to launch an NLRB election until a supermajority has signed cards, said McAlevey, since union avoidance firms like Crossroads can shave off as much as a quarter of the vote. If the majority votes yes, the collective bargaining unit is formed.
Penn suggested to the Columbia workers that virtually any piece of paper they put their name on or link they clicked related to the Teamsters could be a trick. “They can tell you it’s a contact list. They can tell you you’re signing up for a union mailer for extra information,” she said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Do you want more information?’ Yes, union, I do — you know, like text yes to this. That could have been your authorization — it doesn’t have to be the physical cards.”
“That clearly is a way to scare people from even talking to us,” McKibbin said. “First, the NLRB would never accept something that ridiculous, but second of all, we would lose the election. We only want authorization cards by people who support the union.”
Penn repeatedly suggested that joining a union — or even signing a card — could make workers vulnerable to “discipline” if they broke union rules. She only vaguely defined what “discipline” meant, although she indicated that union members could be fined $5,000 or lose their job if they attempted to leave the union.
“They try to scare workers into believing we’re going to go around fining members. That’s silly — theoretically it could happen, I suppose, but it never does,” McKibbin said, adding that the type of activity that would lead to discipline would be “if an officer of a local union does something illegal.”
McAlevey said Penn’s approach was common. “The minute the employer knows you’re there, the first series of pieces of literature are the ones warning you not to sign the union card, and warning you that once you do, you essentially signed your life away and you can go to union jail,” she said.
At one point, Penn noted that it was illegal for unions to threaten people — but claimed that sometimes they did anyway. Unions, according to Penn, will tell workers, “If you don’t jump on board now, we’re going to remember who our friends were, and we have a long memory, so once we’re in, you’re going to lose your job — we’re going to make sure you’re fired.”
Laying out her version of the possible economic effects of unionization, Penn said, “It doesn’t always end up going so badly, but I’ve seen people completely bankrupted — marriages lost, homes lost.”
Crossroads consultants visited the warehouse floor repeatedly to hold group sessions and one-on-one meetings with workers. Many employees initially seemed turned off by the presentations for being so one-sided, Gatto said. “But even right away, when you started talking, people would be like, ‘I don’t want to lose $5,000.’” Meanwhile, Gatto and others said they started to notice managers attempting to listen in on conversations between pro-union workers. Many grew more hesitant to talk about organizing.
McKibbin said that misleading messaging is the name of the game. “If a worker is confused or feels like they don’t have a good understanding of things, they’re not going to support the union.”
Eager to regain momentum, a small group of workers wearing Teamsters T-shirts gathered during a shift change on December 4. Filming with a phone as they entered the warehouse, the group marched to Plater’s office and delivered a petition signed by 47 people demanding that the company stop spreading false information, spying on workers, and intimidating them from exercising their right to form a union.
During the next shift, dozens of people wore Teamsters T-shirts in support of their colleagues who had delivered the petition. Some placed union flyers around the warehouse.
In a meeting later that day, which was recorded by an anonymous source, managers discussed how they should respond, zeroing in on Gatto, who had done the talking in Plater’s office. “It was reported to Alonzo and I a little while ago that Rory Gatto has posted on Facebook during work hours the ‘success’ of his coworkers this afternoon,” one female manager said. “I’m trying to figure out where this line is where we hear they can’t do this type of stuff on working hours.”
The group agreed to track down exactly when Gatto had clocked in. A human resources manager encouraged them to be consistent with past enforcement of social media policies. “We just need to be professional,” she said. “Follow our processes, remember why we’re there, and be consistent and professional in our actions.”
“But if they present an opportunity, I want it,” Plater replied. The group laughed.
Versions of that sentiment would be repeated in two additional management meetings captured by an audio recorder.
“Probably more than three-quarters of the list are people who have behavioral issues, attendance issues, there’s something in their file,” a female manager said of the petition signatories in a second meeting.
The leadership team fantasized aloud about which workers they would like to fire. One manager mentioned a worker whom she’d helped get a job at the warehouse. “I’m kicking myself now, I’m like, shit, I wish I could fire you.”
The managers jokingly suggested giving a pro-union worker a promotion as a means to stop him from organizing. “Put him in a position, give him 90 days, and then say, sorry, you suck at this job, and so we’re going to let you go,” a male manager said. “Buh-bye.”
One meeting participant noted that Plater was “on board with firing” an employee who had worn a Teamsters T-shirt who the managers believed could be disciplined on performance grounds. Later in the conversation, another recalled a joke she’d shared with Plater about pretending to be unaware that the law prohibits retaliation on the basis of an employee’s union activity. “He’s like, I’m gonna fire them right now, and then play like I’m stupid — just be like, I didn’t know.”
Some employees, one of the managers suggested, were simply being manipulated. “I know this is going to sound terrible, but these guys are too dumb to know what they’re doing, and they are very clearly being taken advantage of,” she said of two workers who had worn Teamsters T-shirts. It was a theme that would come up again. “That’s another one that I think just doesn’t understand,” a manager said of another worker who had worn a T-shirt. All three of the employees named were people of color.
One manager described how a worker had asked her if people were allowed to be putting flyers on break area tables. “I said, I can’t touch them, but you sure can,” she recalled. “Go in there and rip them all up if you wish, but you didn’t hear it from me.”
The group lamented the possibility that pro-union employees could win an upcoming company pie-eating contest. “We’re going to get them shit pies,” one manager joked. He described a scene from the 1960s period drama “The Help” in which a black woman serves a chocolate pie to her racist former employer and then informs the white woman that she’s just eaten the ex-maid’s excrement.
A company lawyer was already tracking employees’ policy violations, one manager assured a larger group the next day, “doing a lot of case-based fact-finding — any Facebook posts that we’re escalating — she is just adding, adding, adding, and building this case,” she said.
One attendee asked if Gatto could be disciplined for violating a security policy when he swiped his badge to let the pro-Teamsters group into the office area of the warehouse, rather than forcing each individual to swipe their own badge. “We can through the case-building process,” the manager replied. “We can document all this stuff, which is what’s happening.”
Plater sought to reassure the meeting participants. “This is a group of folks, some of them not the best performers, looking to unite in some way to strike back in some way either against you guys or against Columbia,” he said. “Some of the folks that are organizing, they’re our team too, and they’re just a bit confused. They’re a bit misguided in some cases. But then there are others who are really trying to stick the screws into something.”
For the latter group, he continued, the company need only wait. “Some of them are going down a bad path, and we just need to allow that path to happen, and we need to collect our data.”
The Intercept described the audio to McKibbin, who said it may be “proof that they have a coordinated effort to illegally break up the organizing drive.” “The National Labor Relations Act gives every worker in this country a right to do what the Columbia folks were trying to do, which is form a union to improve their workplace and improve their lives,” McKibbin added. “These managers are cynically plotting how to break that.”
Even so, McAlevey said she was skeptical that the National Labor Relations Board would hold Columbia accountable. “Those violations take a strong NLRB that’s fair and balanced,” she said. The current board is run by Trump appointee Peter Robb, a former management lawyer who was involved in litigation against air traffic controllers in the 1980s that was key to weakening unions. The board’s current members are also Trump appointees; no one on the board has previously represented labor.
In the aftermath of the workers’ petition, policy violations that managers would have shrugged off in the past seemed to be strictly enforced, according to Gatto and three other employees. DeMarrias, who had participated in the march to Plater’s office, said managers wrote him up for clocking in late. He’d been attempting to set up a carpool with colleagues and had arrived behind schedule by less than two minutes a few times. Mikhaylov said he also noticed new enforcement of attendance policies, something he hadn’t seen in his more than 10 years of employment at the facility.
Meanwhile, materials unrelated to work were removed from bulletin boards around the warehouse, seemingly to discourage people from posting pro-union messages, said Mikhaylov and another worker who declined to be named out of concerns of retaliation. Employees in the shipping department were no longer allowed to shut the door to their break room.
Some of the changes seemed to benefit workers. Management installed microwaves and refrigerators in break areas, cleaned up dirty areas of the warehouse, purchased new fans and heaters, and conducted maintenance on neglected equipment. Workers received new training on how to clear conveyer belt jams.
But even that felt like a means of demonstrating that no union was needed, according to Mikhaylov. “It seemed like they were throwing every weapon in the arsenal that they had,” he said. “You give a little, you threaten a little, you spread a little misinformation.”
Gatto was fired on February 21. In late December or early January, he told The Intercept, he had replied to a Facebook post by a coworker who described being bullied by anti-union colleagues. Gatto attempted to comfort his colleague, writing that dudes from that area of the warehouse were just trying to bang some chicks, so she should let it roll off her back. Human Resources called him in a month later to discuss the post, claiming that colleagues had complained that he had created a hostile workplace environment.
After the meeting, Gatto said he received an email from an acquaintance with links to several Facebook posts created as criticism of the way he was being disciplined. In one, the author claimed to be a Columbia worker who wanted to murder Gatto. In another, someone claiming to be a Columbia human resources employee said she wanted to frame him. Gatto told The Intercept that he was aware the posts were fake. Still, he forwarded them to human resources, suggesting that the department should investigate those too. “If I have one fault, it’s that I’m too quick to poke the bear in the eye,” he said.
Days later, Gatto was told he was being fired for violating the company’s code of ethics by impersonating employees online. He maintains that he didn’t write the posts. Gatto says he intends to refile an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which dismissed his first charge because he failed to meet a filing deadline.
“Their whole strategy, whether it was the busters or escalating things, it was to scare people or there’s going to be a heavy price to pay,” said Mikhaylov. And it was effective, he said. Organizing became exceedingly difficult. “A lot of people took the stance that I don’t want to deal with that — I don’t want to know about it — just leave me alone.”
The union supporters were incensed when they began seeing their “Tougher Together” slogan appear on Columbia’s coronavirus social media campaign. It felt particularly offensive given that they weren’t included among the workers who would wait out the pandemic at home. E-commerce would continue, while brick-and-mortar Columbia stores closed down.
At the Portland warehouse, Columbia has made attempts to protect workers. The company placed disinfectants around the facility and assigned workers to circulate the building, wiping things down.
They also enacted measures meant to improve social distancing, dividing workers in each shift into groups and assigning each group periods of “catastrophic” paid leave, so that a portion of the workers at any given time would be out of the warehouse. Managers have attempted to monitor employees for proper distancing practices, but three workers, including DeMarrias, said they continued to witness workers bunched together, grabbing items for shipments from shelves. “You’ve got to go where the work is. The aisles are small, and it’s hard to get down the aisles in the first place,” said one of the workers who declined to be named.
Inevitably, a worker got sick. On April 20, a worker interviewed by The Intercept observed professional cleaners wearing hazmat suits enter the cafeteria where she had just eaten. A supervisor informed her that a colleague had developed Covid-19 symptoms. The facility, however, remained open.
“It’s very anxiety-ridden,” the employee said of the workplace atmosphere.
DeMarrias and Mikhaylov told The Intercept that they were notified two days later that the warehouse would be closed for a deep cleaning. No manager informed them that someone in the building had been diagnosed with Covid-19 — they only learned so from colleagues. Only after the worker got sick did Columbia begin offering optional masks at the facility’s entrance.
The Teamsters argue that a union can ease the pain of catastrophes like the pandemic. If the Columbia employees were successful in their unionization efforts, they would be represented by Teamsters Local 162. The local’s president, Mark Davison, pointed to unionized Pepsi warehouse workers in the area as an example of the kinds of Covid-19 protections a union can achieve. The company is paying warehouse workers $2 extra per hour in hazard pay, offering two weeks of paid time off for anyone who self-quarantines or needs to care for a sick family member, allowing up to 12 weeks off at two-thirds pay for workers whose kids’ schools have closed, and providing money for crisis care — workers can access up to $100 per day for child care. The measures were the result of union negotiations, Davison said.
“For companies that we have a contract with, they’ve got to do business with us now and into the future,” Davison explained. “To just tell us no isn’t going to work for them.”
“I think things would be different if we had a union involved, because we’d all at least have our 2 cents,” said one of the Columbia workers who declined to be named. Covid-19 has slowed the organizing efforts, with meetings practically impossible and many people focused on pandemic-related challenges at home. For now, the worker said, “What we say, what we think, does not matter.”
Ultimately, the allure of good PR only goes so far in an order-on-demand retail environment defined by Amazon. As coronavirus anxiety normalized and orders piled up, some of the Portland warehouse workers received notice that catastrophic pay and rotating shifts would conclude at the end of April. Some are being asked to work overtime again, and DeMarrias said he’s noticed that supervisors have been more lax in enforcing social distancing. And last weekend 30 retail stores reopened. Unlike warehouse employees, all store workers will be required to cover their faces.
As one worker put it, “It’s not over yet, but they’re going back to their old ways.”
“Everyone is rallying to find a vaccine for this virus. But for so long, no one cared to find a vaccine for the racial pandemic,” said health care scientist Hugo Caicedo.