Union-Bashing Is on the Menu at Tim Hortons

A US firm, Positive Management Leadership, is teaching some of Canada’s leading businesses how to snuff out union organizing before it gets off the ground. Their investment in union-bashing shows how much those companies fear organized and empowered workers.

Employers, active across very different sectors, all appear happy to share resources and best practices when it comes to keeping their workplaces unorganized.

The training firm Positive Management Leadership (PML), based in South Carolina, boasts some of Canada’s biggest companies among its clients, including household names like Canadian Tire, Staples, Best Buy, and juggernaut fast-food coffee purveyor, Tim Hortons.

PML offers them advice and support in one important task: keeping out trade unions. During a 2019 anti-union conference in Toronto, Honda Canada representative John Moulding credited PML president Terry Dunn with helping keep his company “union-free.”

A close look at PML’s client base and the gushing testimonials they offer for its training programs tells us a lot about the anti-union mentality that holds sway in corporate Canada. But it also shows us that these companies are deeply worried about the potential power of their workers.

Pyramid Power

Dunn’s firm, which was set up in 1986, purports to simply offer its clients lessons in leadership so as to avoid “crisis situations.” PML’s website boasts that over 17,000 mid- to senior-level executives are graduates of our programs.” It offers such graduates “rapid response team” training, where would-be union busters learn how to fight organizing drives.

At PML, according to the company’s website, managers learn “how to shut off card-signing, quickly.” That means learning how to “monitor” employee discussions, “conduct captive audience meetings,” and deal with “disruptive union supporters” who are intent on submitting workplaces to what PML calls “mob rule.”

PML also runs simulated “union meetings” where managers go head-to-head against a “well-trained, aggressive and articulate union official.” Others play rounds of “Pyramid Power” — PML’s anti-union version of Trivial Pursuit.

PML’s core leadership consists of Terry and Michelle Dunn. Terry Dunn boasts that he previously served as a manager at Kraft and General Electric. He is also a board member at CUE, Inc. — another anti-union organization, set up by the National Association of Manufacturers in 1977. According to his official bio:

During his corporate career, Terry led change management processes and crisis management teams for maintaining union-free operations. Throughout his service, he was also directly involved in thirty-three organizing campaigns, including de-certifications in the U.S. and Canada.

PML’s site lists “leadership consultants” that include a onetime Walmart “labor response teammember, former HR directors from Sobeys Canada and IBM, and a retired US army colonel, Bart Rovins.

Big-Ticket Clients

As well as Honda, past and present clients of PML include some other big automakers and manufacturing companies such as Hyundai, BMW, Toyota, Boeing, Michelin, Holcim, and the Triumph Group. Many of these companies have fought long anti-union battles, going back decades in some cases.

Michelin North America, for example, is infamous in Eastern Canada for its fight with the United Rubber Workers’ Union. In the 1970s, tensions between workers and management came to a head when the company used its influence to push for anti-union laws.

These laws led to bans on picketing Michelin construction sites, and later to the retroactive overriding of union certifications. Current Michelin North America HR consultant Mark King boasts that he’s served on PML’s “simulation team” since 2019.

Boeing, meanwhile, made headlines in 2017 for its “hardball” campaign against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) in South Carolina. The company opted to “flood the airwaves” with anti-union ads — including approximately 485 TV spots outside the workplace and others on televisions placed strategically inside it, urging workers to “Just say NO to the IAM.”

Current PML consultant Steve Przybelinski previously served as Boeing’s director of manufacturing engineering. At Boeing, he offered “secondary support to union avoidance while building productive teams in both engineering and technical areas.”

The appearance of BMW, Hyundai, and Toyota on the list is unsurprising. As London School of Economics professor John Logan noted in 2019, all three companies are also prominent clients of Ogletree Deakins, America’s second-largest employer-side law firm specializing in union avoidance.

Service-Sector Clients

Some of PML’s other clients are service-industry firms, whose employees are already harder for unions to organize than manufacturing workers. These companies include JCPenney, Canadian Tire, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gap, Hallmark Cards, Best Buy, and Tim Hortons.

Best Buy, via email, has denied being a PML client. However, as John Logan observes, the company is a client of former IBM management consultant Charles L. Hughes, through his organization, the Centre for Values Research (CVR) — along with Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and others. CVR’s home page promises its prospective clients insights into “making unions unnecessary through positive employee relations.”

Additionally, Best Buy has other ties to “union avoidance” schemes. Last Spring, Vice leaked an anti-union video that Best Buy had posted internally for members of its HR team. The company’s HR VP Howard Rankin’s LinkedIn profile notes that he, as employee relations senior director:

. . . developed a comprehensive strategy to identify and partner with field locations at risk for union organizing activity. In partnership with field HR and operations leaders, the ER team develops and implements plans to drive sustained employee engagement in order to reduce risk.

Rankin’s LinkedIn further notes that he led Target’s HR strategy, when it opened its stores in Canada. In 2019, former Best Buy Canada CFO Philippe Arrata moved on to become CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, where he attached his name to “Updates from Phil” — letters meant to dissuade workers from unionizing.

Staples is also on PML’s list. While the company did not respond to requests for comment, its Canadian office published a job posting in 2018, based in Richmond Hill, Ontario, for an HR business partner capable of reporting on “progressive discipline” and “union avoidance.”

Hallmark Cards is another company that appears on PML’s client list. While the company did not respond to requests for comment, two of its former HR managers in the United States and Canada have listed “union avoidance” and working to “retain union-free environment” among their responsibilities.

A Double-Double of Union Avoidance

Tim Hortons is listed as a previous PML client — but the version of the list the company appears on is cached. However, the company is listed again as a PML client on the firm’s Greenville Chamber of Commerce page. And while its parent firm, Restaurant Brands International, denied being a PML client, it certainly has clear ties to union avoidance activity.

According to former Tim Hortons CEO, Donald Schroeder, from 1995 onward, he “oversaw the design and implementation of a union avoidance strategy for our storeowners that enabled them to become very pro-active in creating and maintaining a positive workplace environment for their staff.”

In early 2020, Tim Hortons locked out staff at one of its few unionized restaurants. During this union drive, the franchise owner also held a captive audience meeting, supposedly at the behest of the company’s head office, and threatened the workers’ jobs.

The GAP Inc. is another company featured on PML’s list of clients. The company’s global HR director, Kyle Hargreaves, following employment history at Walmart’s Mississauga, Ontario office and its Chicago office, boasted that he has “significant experience in union avoidance.”

Canadian Tire is particularly happy with the services rendered by PML, offering a favorable testimonial for its website, thanking the firm for supplying “a tremendous amount of thought-provoking ideas and concepts”:

I will absolutely become better at hearing what our employees are feeling. I am taking away a renewed sense of what leadership is all about, the idea that (in a number of ways) the journey is just beginning, and (hopefully) a few ounces of the tremendous passion you all put into PML.

A representative of International Paper was equally enthusiastic: “I found the training to be career- and life-changing events; I will surely use the experiences of this week in both my professional/career leadership roles and personal life.” And an anonymous representative of BMW described the PML course as an “eye-opener” that was “well worth my time and the company’s time and money. I will take away a much-improved knowledge of unions and the various issues which cause union activity.”

These employers, active across very different sectors, all appear happy to share resources and best practices when it comes to keeping their workplaces unorganized. They may compete with each other for market share, but when it comes to union avoidance, the business class operates like a cozy cartel.

Workers shouldn’t lose heart, however. Even minimum-wage employers in sectors that are generally seen as very hard to organize clearly feel the need to spend serious money on professional assistance for their anti-union efforts. They wouldn’t stump up the cash if they didn’t feel vulnerable. Retail and service-sector workers should take note of that vulnerability and exploit it to the hilt.