Felix Allen, who launched a union drive at the Lowe’s on Elysian Fields in New Orleans, has been busy. While working at Lowe’s, he also moonlights as a musician and works to garner as much support as possible for an independent union among his coworkers. After beginning their campaign, Allen and others in the store faced down surveillance, intimidation, and heavy anti-union propaganda at the prospect of their fledgling union. However, the union withdrew their petition after their submission was challenged on technical grounds.
To form a union, workers gauge interest in unionizing with their co-workers and decide if they are looking to form an independent union or join an existing one, then collect signatures from workers on authorization cards that signify their support. In most cases, 30% of the non-management employees must sign on for the fledgling union to file for an official National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. The NLRB oversees union elections (among other laborly responsibilities; they are also woefully underfunded) and is tasked with ensuring that elections are free from intimidation and interference. If the vote passes in favor of the union, then the employer is legally bound to come to the table and negotiate a contract with the workers.
Because Lowe’s Workers United faced an early setback from the legal challenge to their election petition, one could easily overlook just how impressive the gains that the self-described “ragtag” independent union has gotten. Starbucks unionization victories are rightly celebrated as they win election after election, but most of those stores have relatively small workforces. The Lowe’s in question has a union-eligible class of about 172 people, in a store with many departments. This means at least 52 signatures were needed just to file for an election—Lowe’s Workers United filed with 68 signed authorization cards. Not only that, but Allen says that the mere threat of the union has resulted in measurable concessions to the workers on the floor—raises and discretionary bonuses that Lowe’s claimed were unrelated to the union drive.
On one warm December day, I sat down on some stacked Adirondack chairs in front of the garden center on Elysian Fields to speak with Allen about the union drive at Lowe’s: what inspired him to start organizing the massive store, what he learned from organizing with his co-workers, and where the workers of 2501 Elysian Fields go from here.
What is your position at Lowe’s?
I’m merchandising service team (MST). I’ve been here over two years; I started in the middle of the pandemic at an entry-level position, ended up working here full time from December 2020 to August 2021. I got hired as a third-party person [not technically employed by the store at first but worked for a third party vendor], and then as a merchandiser at $12 an hour. Until October, I was making somewhere between $12 and $12.88. And now I make over $17; I don’t remember the exact decimals because it hasn’t been put on the paycheck yet. Basically whenever new products come out, or something’s not selling, they’ll have us move stuff around in a certain way. There is a dichotomy between the red vests and the MSTs: We’re not supposed to have a huge customer service function. We’re supposed to pass customers off to them in a polite way, but the store is so understaffed that we often end up taking up a lot of that customer service function. I’m not really supposed to be cutting keys or cutting wood for customers, but I end up doing that a lot. It’s no fault of the red vests, it’s just there aren’t enough of them.
So how long has Lowe’s been understaffed?
Since I’ve been here, it’s always felt like that. There are times where you’re trying to clock out, and then there’ll be that rush of like five people coming in during lunchtime to ask you to find some archaic device for plumbing or something, or they’ll show you a picture of like, a 500-year-old screw and then they want you to walk through all this with them, helping them find things that we probably don’t even sell. It’s no fault of the customers. I think if you come to a store like Lowe’s you should be able to get the help you need. We’re just not situated that way.
And how did you get involved with organizing?
Oh, you know, I’ve been talking to some people around town, and I’ve met a lot of folks who have been involved in organizing and they inspired me to get on with it. I grew up going to public schools, and I saw a very stark contrast between the privileges I had, and what a lot of my peers were dealing with. Particularly the past two years, the first summer of the pandemic there were a lot of racial justice protests going on. And then almost simultaneously, there’s Christian Smalls organizing at Amazon… We didn’t really start organizing until this April. It had been something I’d thought about before, but I just didn’t conceive it as possible. But I was thinking about the Starbucks across town, and people in Bessemer, Alabama had tried to unionize and I thought, Well, if they can do that in the Deep South, and get as far as they did, we can at least give it a shot.
What is the process of starting that push? What is it like starting organizing for a union drive at your store?
There’s so much information you need to know about starting these things, and I was ignorant of most of it. So I reached out to a lot of people. I reached out to local organizers, and one of my friends from high school told me to reach out to the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], so I got some training through them. And then other people told me to ask for advice from the Teamsters and UNITE HERE and places like that. Folks have been very generous with their time. So we got advice from those people, but for various reasons, me and other organizers wanted to do this independently.
The first steps to organizing that people usually talk about is mapping out some of the relationships in your store—who’s friends with whom, getting a spreadsheet of who works in what department, and how many employees you have. We had various tricks for finding that stuff out. But the first thing was just taking the temperature and seeing who was interested. And what I found was, seeing people who are interested and who’d be supportive is one thing, but getting people who would be committed, it’s a whole different thing. I was able to find some people who are committed to working on this behind the scenes. I won’t say I can afford to lose this job, but it’s not as huge of a risk to me as for some other people, so I felt like I could stick my neck out a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever even been late to work. So I mean, they’ll find a reason to fire me if they really want to, but they’re gonna look bad for it.
The other organizers are from here, they grew up here. I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. But I recognized that that was important, particularly this being a majority Black store. It’s funny, a lot of people asked me if I had difficulty relating to people, but I mean, I didn’t sense that at all. People accepted me almost unconditionally.
This is kind of tangential, but once we started the drive, and we were collecting signatures for our position, I was shooting basketball on the court nearby and I saw a coworker, and they came by and shot basketball with me for a second, and we talked about the union, and they ended up signing a card. That felt like something that could happen in a movie.
I knew it was important to get people from the community on board. It wasn’t too hard because they know exactly what’s at stake and they have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to gain. Fighting for economic justice and fighting for racial justice are inseparable—like protests around George Floyd‘s death, that kind of thing was happening almost simultaneously with the labor movement getting revitalized.
How many people work here?
Excluding managers… it kind of wavers. We filed for like 172 [on the NLRB petition] but it ended up being 169 people that we were going to represent, and then there are managers in other positions like asset protection.
And how many people signed a petition?
It was 68 out of 169, about 40%.
You talk about being understaffed, and what else do you see around you in your workplace that needs to be changed?
So I made $12.88. Pretty experienced people that train new employees, who have been here like 15 years [are] making less than the new hires. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with new people getting paid a living wage. I think that’s exactly what they should be getting paid. But that’s a very clear example of the fact that they see us as numbers and metrics. They’re trying to pay us as little as they can, they’re not taking into account fairness. It’s like we’re not a person, and we’re just worth whatever labor they can extract from us.
A lot of folks just had issues with getting disrespect from management. People have been hassled for taking water breaks and that kind of thing. There’s been complaints of favoritism… There have been some complaints about racism [too]… And then it feels like the policy on people getting let go for being late is kind of draconian. There are a lot of problems in this community. There’s a lot of poverty. A lot of people don’t have cars, particularly if they’re young, so they’re taking the bus to work… People have problems, they got parents and grandparents, they’re taking care of sick people and brothers and sisters. People are getting let go for what seems like vindictive reasons. That hasn’t necessarily been happening to me; I’ve been treated pretty well, but I have the privilege of not having to look after anybody and having a pretty stable life.
With union representation, we just want to have a voice. We don’t want to be treated as expendable. They talk about, “You can come directly to management. We have an open door policy.” You want to have a direct relationship with us the way a fox wants to have a direct relationship with a hen! It’s not an equal thing. So that’s why the hens need to band together. [Laughs] It’s probably not a great analogy, but if we have collective power, we can actually change things that we want changed, rather than just trying to address them individually, when they’re not going to listen.
They’re just not gonna address the things that need to be addressed. There’s no grievance process. Recently, several people have been fired. One person felt that some discrimination was involved because she had been pretty loudly talking around managers about being interested in the union. She kind of made jokes about it, like if she got frustrated, she’d say, “This is why we need the union.” She also raised concerns about having to work in an area behind gates that are locked a lot of the time, as a theft deterrent. So she ended up having to wander through the store and finding someone to unlock them, or she’s got to go around. When all these corporate people came in, and once we started the union drive, they apparently made a list of people they thought were non-performers, and she was one of them. Anybody in the store will tell you she works her ass off, but they said she was wandering around or something. And she said, “Well, I’m wandering around because I can’t get anybody to unlock the fucking gate for me so I gotta go look for someone.” And I think she felt there was a safety issue too… so she got fired. That’s exactly the kind of thing we would want to address with the union.
What was the response from management? Did you see things like captive meetings? Did they distribute literature? And how did they hear about the union drive?
We’ve been organizing since April, and we didn’t start our union drive until later. I think they were suspicious once we started the union drive a month or two ago. They’re watching us talk to each other on cameras, because there are cameras everywhere. I don’t think they knew for sure until I had to give them the subpoena. The very next week, the store was flooded with managers. A lot of them I recognized because they’re from neighboring stores, and some of them have worked here before. You could definitely tell… I mean, it’s like an 80% Black store and when random white dudes in red vests trying to act friendly come in, you know exactly what they’re here for. And they had three or four like, anti-union consultants, one of them is a fellow alumni from the college I went to, which was disappointing. The captive audience meetings, I mean, it’s just the usual playbook. Like, “You wouldn’t be getting these discretionary bonuses if you’re in a union.” But the reason they gave us our most recent discretionary bonus is because we’ve organized! They gave us a nationwide raise, so a lot of people got $16 or $17 an hour, which, in keeping with inflation, that’s not as much as it sounds like. But a lot of people were really happy with that.
Well I mean, if you’re at $12, $16 is a big deal.
Yeah. It was a big deal for a lot of people. In terms of the other things management did, I was standing right over there handing out leaflets to people several days in during one week and they’d just come out and fuck with me, a lot. There were [also] captive audience meetings. Basically the first day, all the managers came in from neighboring stores, and it was very noticeable. It felt like they were trying to intimidate us and spy on us. They’re asking people, “How do you like the store?” “What do you think can be changed?” And some people were like, “It’s fine.” Other people just went off on them. Most people felt like that was an attempt to figure out who signed the cards, but I’m sure they’re careful to avoid anything that’s technically an unfair labor practice charge. Then there were the anti-union consultants at our morning meetings. Our manager would introduce them and say, “This is Shawn, I don’t know much about the union, but you should ask him questions if you have any.” Of course, no one asked him questions. They just follow people around and say things like, “You know, if you’re in a union, you have to pay dues,” and stuff like that.
We had our district manager here—I rarely ever see her but she was there every single day for about two months, usually within about 20 yards of me. If I was on an aisle where there was no cameras, they would be standing near the aisle to make sure I couldn’t leave to talk to people, that kind of thing… You know, it’s funny, people talk about other countries around the world being authoritarian or whatever. But if you try to form a union in your workplace in the U.S., you’re gonna find out real quick what authoritarian means.
So what was the initial response when you were talking to your co-workers about the union? How did those conversations go?
A lot of the older people knew exactly what a union was. A lot of people were like, “Just give me the paper to sign and I’m down.” But that didn’t necessarily translate to people wanting to participate [in organizing]. That’s a tricky thing. And that was difficult with a lot of older folks because some of them were nearing retirement. Some of them didn’t care enough. Some of them were scared… but there were little old ladies who signed without hesitation, who were not scared at all. And there were younger folks as well who didn’t know what it meant to be in a union, but I would explain things like the process of negotiating a better contract. And I was even able to explain things like dues to most people, like, “Yeah, unions are going to have to pay dues, but you’re going to have to vote on the dues. You have to vote on a contract, and no one’s going to vote for a contract unless you get a raise that outweighs what you’re paying in dues. No one is going to vote on something that makes them lose money.” So people got it when I explained that. People recognize the parallels: Capitalism and racism and the destruction of the environment, all these things are inseparable. But particularly, us fighting for economic justice by going for a union and fighting for racial justice, especially in a city like this, which is generally in the top 10 in economic inequality in the country. That’s really important here. I mean, people are aware of what Dr. King was moving towards, towards the end of his life, until the day he was assassinated. He was involved in the labor movement.
Yeah, the sanitation workers’ strike.
Yeah. So you want to gauge how people are doing. And inevitably, I can usually guess the answer is gonna be, “It sucks” or “I’m ready to go already, I just clocked in.” I could kind of probe them a little bit more and find out what their exact grievances were. Like this lady, she talked about how she’s on Medicaid. She said, “I work here every fucking day, and I’m in subsidized housing.” Another, younger coworker said kind of jokingly, “I’m down for the revolution.” So they get that this is about more than just pay.
So describe what happened with the NLRB.
We asked the officer whether the authorization statement on our petition needed to name a specific union, or whether we could just choose a name after we collected all the signatures and when we were ready to file. The officer explicitly told us that this was fine. We read them our authorization statement exactly as it would read on the petition: “By signing this petition, you acknowledge that you are seeking the representation of a collective bargaining unit (a union).” The officer gave it the OK so we printed out our petition and started collecting signatures. After we got what we needed, we settled on “Lowe’s Workers United” and went to the NLRB office downtown to get help filling out the RC [representation election] petition, and I left the signatures with our board agent. I served the subpoena to the managers that afternoon.
Lowe’s lawyers got in contact a day or two later with the NLRB and raised the question about our affiliation. They read on Nola.com that I declined to tell a reporter whether or not the union was independent and that led them to raise the question, which led the NLRB to cite some language from their manual and basically tell us that the wording of our authorization statement was a problem. My feeling remains that the board should have gone by this language [from their manual] instead: “Although it is expected that the Agency’s Regional Directors and their staffs will follow the Manual’s guidelines in the handling of cases, it is also expected that in their exercise of professional judgment and discretion, there will be situations in which they will adapt these guidelines to circumstances. Thus, the guidelines are not intended to be and should not be viewed as binding procedural rules. Rather, they provide a framework for the application of the Board’s decisional law and rules to the facts of the particular situations presented to the Regional Directors and their staffs, consistent with the purposes and policies of the Act.” [emphasis added] Everyone knew that our union was independent and run by workers in the store. It was one of the first things we told folks who signed. And the problem was when Lowe’s lawyers made their initial outreach to the NLRB. They said, “We’ve never heard of Lowe’s Workers United. So we don’t know if that’s an independent union or nationally affiliated or what.” Their reasoning was, maybe the workers signing these cards didn’t know either. The NLRB buckled under that pressure because, I mean, they’re bureaucrats and they had to go about what’s on the page and not what’s really happening on the ground. So that was frustrating.
So then you had to withdraw?
So we withdrew. And, you know, we’re going to keep organizing. We’re definitely going to shift our approach and keep building an organizing committee. Having good conversations and inoculating people against what management is going to send out is important, and we could have done a better job of that, mainly because I was really the only one working on this publicly. So when the campaign came around union busting, there are people who are scared by their tactics, there are people who bought into the stuff about us. One thing I thought that was funny that they wrote was like, “Ask these questions when the union comes around,” like, “Where’s my money going to?” and they’d have a little bullet point, like, “the address of the union office is the union organizer’s home.” And I was like, damn, that’s a bit personal. It’s kind of funny, they’re making it seem like I just want them to send money to my house. I tried not to make this personal with managers. I told them straight up: “This is nothing personal against you. This is something a lot of people want to see change.” I don’t think they made it too personal, but I mean, when they’re putting up a bunch of flyers by the break room, saying the organizer is full of shit and a liar it’s hard not to feel some type of way about that… No one withdrew their signatures. I just withdrew the petition because of that legal issue.
Are you allowed to resubmit your petition?
Yeah, we’re allowed to! It’s just a question of taking the time to build a stronger committee. We’re a bit ragtag in the first place. One of my co-workers said, “I think we need to just flex on them at this point.” We talked about if we go with an established union, we’d have a better chance of winning an election. I think people felt like we want to do this ourselves, even if it’s going to be much more of an uphill battle. Show them who we are. The tricky thing, but the fun part was getting people to talk to me outside of work. It can be hard to set up time to do that. But I mean, I was able to go to some people’s houses. I met a worker out there playing basketball. And I have been realizing how tightly knit this community is, because a lot of people who work here have known each other since fifth grade. They grew up in this neighborhood. I went to the second line on Sunday, and I saw a dude from plumbing there. And I had no idea he’s in a second line group. But yeah, there are a lot of challenges.
What is next for Lowe’s United? Are you asking people to do anything in solidarity with y’all or any actions that you’re asking from people who don’t work at the store?
DSA reached out to us, they’ve been really helpful in spreading the word and also had a lot of people reach out nationwide from Lowe’s and Home Depot stores, which is cool. There’s a union drive at a Home Depot in Philadelphia, and I spoke to that organizer. We’ve talked a lot about what we did. And the way we did things was actually pretty parallel and I took a lot of advice from him. But there are some other folks trying to organize their Home Depot and Lowe’s; we’ve gotten on a Zoom call together and hashed some things out. Hopefully, we’ll see some more of that. As far as here goes, we want to keep building an organizing committee. Hopefully, people will feel comfortable enough going public along with me, but I totally understand why they wouldn’t because there’s been a recent spate of firings for various bullshit reasons.
And are you full time now?
I’m still part time. So that’s, I mean, I literally worked here 24 hours a week, three eight-hour shifts, and I’ve worked a lot on like Frenchmen Street, playing the drums.
What bands are you in? Anything you want to plug?
Oh no! They’re all too shitty to plug. [Laughs]
Do you have an ideal day you would like to re-file by?
Not really. We’ll run it back, to use basketball terminology.
And it sounds like people were not convinced by the anti-union tactics?
Sometimes they were, a lot of times they recognized that it was bullshit. And a lot of times, it felt like they’re still on my side, but it just made them kind of back off just enough, or they have that little bit of fear, a little bit of doubt… I guess the last thing I should say [is] about some of the positive changes we’ve seen since we organized. People recognize that organizing works. We got that nationwide raise and they posted a little notice, they called everybody in the office individually and the store manager told them, “Oh, by the way, this raise is not because of the union.” And then people came up and told me that she said that and they just looked at her blankly as if to say, “You know, we’re not stupid.” And then we got another discretionary bonus. And they moved two managers from the store that I think people complained about, so that was another thing that people felt was a positive change… People recognize that organizing works and they recognize that the concessions that we’ve gotten from management, and the gains that we’ve gotten are because we’ve organized and we’ve only just scratched the surface.
photos by James Cullen