On Aug. 23, management at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Brooklyn location ushered workers into a theater for a mandatory staff meeting, the first in a series of events designed to combat a nascent union drive.
“Bringing a union into this venue also doesn’t give you job security as unions don’t equal that,” General Manager Carlos Hincapie told workers. “If they did, then no union business would close or lay off their employees, and we know that that’s not necessarily true. Not saying that will happen here. But when the business is not competitive, then it can happen. And unions can make businesses not be competitive.”
These comments come from a series of recordings taken by Alamo employees and reviewed by Columbia News Service. The recordings provide insight into anti-union strategies and show how corporate leaders crafted messages that test the limits of federal labor law without necessarily violating National Labor Relations Board rules.
The recorded meetings led by Hincapie were staged on Aug. 23, 26 and 31, employees said, adding that CEO Michael Kustermann was also recorded giving an anti-union speech on Sept. 14.
Multiple workers identified Hincapie as the man leading the meetings, and he can be heard introducing himself as “Carlos… the general manager” in the first recording. Jennifer Yarbrough, a vice president who runs human relations for Alamo Drafthouse, and Kelley Bondelie, senior director of operations, were also introduced during two of the meetings.
Kustermann, Hincapie, Yarbrough and Bondelie did not respond to requests for comment sent to company emails and Kustermann’s LinkedIn account. A spokesperson for Alamo said the company wouldn’t comment.
Management’s campaign started shortly after workers at the theater’s Brooklyn location filed a petition to form a union with United Auto Workers. More than 75 percent of the roughly 190-employee bargaining group signed cards indicating their support for an election, which is slated for Sept. 28 and 29. If more than half of the workers vote to unionize, the UAW will represent servers, kitchen staff, concierges and others. Workers at the Manhattan Alamo location also recently filed their own union petition.
“Alamo is not some big bad company that wants to suppress wages or create poor working conditions or disrespect team members,” CEO Kustermann said in one recording. “Having a union is potentially hazardous, in my opinion, to employees.”
The union drives at New York City Alamo theaters come amid a surge in unionization efforts in the country. The NLRB reported 2,510 union elections in fiscal year 2022, a 53 percent increase from 2021. The number of unionized workers grew by about 200,000 in the U.S. in 2022, but non-union job growth was faster, leaving the rate of union membership at an all-time low of 10.1 percent, according to an Economic Policy Institute report.
The NLRB has rules that govern how management can campaign in the lead-up to a union vote. Employers are allowed to express opposition to unions, including in mandatory meetings, but they must be truthful and refrain from threats.
In the Aug. 26 meeting, a worker correctly stated that union dues would cost 2.5 percent of workers’ paychecks. Hincapie responded, “I don’t know about the percentage, I think that still goes into bargaining as well. I’m not fully sure about that yet. But it’s not the number you said, although that might have been what they told you.”
Hincapie’s statement was incorrect. Dues are not part of the bargaining process and, as Hincapie acknowledged in a later meeting, the 2.5 percent figure is correct.
“If a union is voted in, you will start paying dues, you will start paying the initiation fee,” said Hincapie at another point.
In the UAW, dues aren’t paid until after a contract is signed, according to UAW representative Will Bobrowski. Initiation fees cost $1 for workers at newly organized workplaces, according to the UAW constitution.
While some management statements in the recordings are incorrect, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, it’s unlikely the NLRB would rule that as the reason for a finding of unfair labor practices. “This is a typical captive audience meeting of an employer who has been instructed on what to do and not to do,” she said. “They’re being careful.”
Another leaked recording comes from a one-on-one meeting on Aug. 24. The audio includes an incident in which server and union organizer Bridge Squitire says he was told by a supervisor that he wasn’t allowed to post pro-union fliers on a break-room bulletin board.
“You can’t hang stuff on our property,” the supervisor said. “You can campaign however you want, just not on our stuff.”
The board is used by staff to post non-work-related material, and management regularly posts anti-union literature in the break room.
The Alamo handbook allows “approved materials’’ to be posted in break areas, but does not specify a process for approval. Federal labor law does not allow employers to single out union literature for prohibition. Because other non-work material is allowed on the board, the decision to block Squitire’s flier could constitute an unfair practice, said Bronfenbrenner.
A rule change on Aug. 25 raised the stakes for rules violations, when the NLRB decided to recognize unions at companies found to have used unfair labor practices.
Alamo’s campaign has focused on the cost of union dues, along with UAW’s history of corruption.
“Wages can go up, they can go down, they can stay the same. There’s no guarantee to any of that. But one thing that is guaranteed is you will have to pay union dues,” said Hincapie in the Aug. 26 meeting.
“The company is going to send out and share some information with you about the UAW’s recent history of major corruption scandals, including many union officers going to prison for embezzling and disregarding member interests,” he said on Aug. 31.
In July 2022, the UAW was rocked by a corruption scandal that culminated in the sentencing of 12 senior officials. New elections were overseen by a federal monitor in an attempt to curtail corruption.
Alamo workers can be heard pushing back against the anti-union campaign in the recordings.
“I’ve been working here since 2019. I don’t think this job has ever been this difficult or this frustrating or this hard for any of the employees,” Robert Guilbe, a server at Alamo, said during the Aug. 31 meeting. “I feel like there’s just no way for us to go around it other than for us to do the unionizing.”
Other workers have spoken against the union. In the Aug. 23 meeting, some employees, whose voices could not be identified, said they felt that kitchen and drink staff were being left out of the conversation.
“I keep hearing tips, tips. So that’s only for servers and front-of-house. So what is this going to mean for the kitchen?” asked one. “That has nothing to do with us. We don’t get tips. Are we important?”
Connor McGarry, an Alamo worker who supports the union, says the anti-union literature and meetings have “created a great amount of distrust between most of the staff and management. … A lot of people who weren’t necessarily gung-ho on the idea of a union feel a lot more strongly in support of it just because of how aggressive management has been.”
In the Aug. 31 meeting, Hincapie acknowledged that some management tactics may have been overzealous.
“Do you not think that’s coming off a little aggressive?” a worker whose voice could not be identified asked Hincapie of a sign in the break room. “You can be saying that you want us to have a fair shot at voting, do your research, but yet in black and white they’re saying ‘please vote no.’”
“Honestly, yes, I do agree that that’s a bit much,” responded Hincapie. “So we will be taking that down.”
As of Sept. 8, posters reading “please vote no” were still displayed in the break room, according to workers.