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Paul Stamets’ Employees Push to Unionize Over Allegations of Low Pay and Insurance Disruptions

A group of workers at Fungi Perfecti are pushing for a union, but facing obstacles from a consulting firm known for its union avoidance services.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated May 31, 2024

On May 3, 2024, The Stand broke the news that on-site workers at Fungi Perfecti, mycologist Paul Stamets’ medicinal and gourmet mushroom brand, are seeking to unionize with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 252. The workers are seeking increases in pay and consistent healthcare coverage, among other benefits. And if they unionize, it could set higher standards for working conditions in psychedelics and wellness industries. But employees are facing what’s commonly referred to as a “union avoidance” campaign — a term coined by labor organizations in the ’50s and ’60s to describe strategies used to avoid unionization — by the American Labor Group (ALG), a consulting firm with a history of deterring workers from organizing.

LiUNA Local 252 confirms with DoubleBlind that they have filed complaints of Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Fungi Perfecti, asserting that additional complaints are in the works to protect employees from having to endure tactics designed for union interference. The NLRB determines the timeline for a vote to unionize and who is eligible. Fungi Perfecti LLC says they have asked the NLRB for this information, and has not yet heard back. They also told DoubleBlind that they are in support of a date being established and the process proceeding.

“The workers at Fungi Perfecti are standing strong through these stalling tactics intended to delay the determination of the unit with the NLRB,” says Anthony Johnson, Organizing Director of LiUNA Local 252. “These workers are not discouraged, they are disciplined and prepared. They are fiercely determined to stand together and improve their workplace.”

Warehouse staff at Fungi Perfecti informed Stamets about their intent to unionize twice in the first three months of 2024, emphasizing that their efforts were not an affront to him or the business and asking for his collaboration in moving the process forward.

In early April, however, Fungi Perfecti, LLC hired ALG, a full-service human resource and labor and consulting firm that works with employers in several ways, including management training, union avoidance, helping employers navigate Unfair Labor Practice (ULPs) charges, “role-playing how to legally and effectively answer employee questions,” and collective bargaining negotiations. Workers say ALG has been holding “unrequired” meetings where attendance is “heavily encouraged” to discuss the “pitfalls” of unions. 

Stamets says that hiring the American Labor Group is to inform Fungi Perfecti workers about what becoming a union entails and, ultimately, what employees are getting themselves into should they unionize.

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“Fungi Perfecti engaged with American Labor Group in April [2024] in order to gain guidance on how to best help inform employees of the unionization process and their legal rights throughout,” Stamets tells DoubleBlind. On ALG’s website, it says that they lead with stats, teaching people about the history of unions, and the evolution of unions in the US. “ALG has provided an open space for questions about unionization that employees may have.”

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In 2019, Stamets enlisted the assistance of Littler Mendelson P.C., a US-based law firm specializing in labor and employment law. It represented  Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon during workers’ unionization efforts. Stamets says that Fungi Perfecti did not engage with Littler Mendelson in response to its workers pushing for a union. 

“Littler Mendelson PC has been the company’s labor and employment counsel for many years – since [2019] when our insurance company recommended we use them,” Stamets says. “We did not on-board them in response to any unionization efforts.”

Anthony Johnson, the organizing director of LiUNA, points out that the roles of employment lawyers evolve with the needs of their clients. “It doesn’t matter when [Littler Mendelson] was hired. Littler, which is known for union-busting campaigns, is working with them now.”

There’s a lot of professional overlap in the labor world. Many labor lawyers, union presidents, and members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) work together throughout their careers. For example, the founder and President of ALG is Jim Monica, a seasoned labor relations attorney who used to work at Littler Mendelson P.C. between 2011 and 2015. During his tenure, he represented employers in all aspects of traditional labor law, including, “collective bargaining, arbitrations, NLRB and D0L matters, litigation, and union avoidance,” according to the American Labor Group’s website. At the start of his career, he worked at a union-side labor law firm, where he represented unions in arbitrations, collective bargaining, and federal court litigation.

Littler and Mendleson also once recruited the head of the NLRB to join its firm. The NLRB is an independent federal agency responsible for upholding fair labor practices in the US by safeguarding workers’ rights, conducting union elections, resolving disputes, and preventing unfair practices. General laws are in place to deter misusing privileged information and conflicts of interest, but it still happens.

Sources within the Fungi Perfecti steering committee tell DoubleBlind that Stamets has openly told workers he doesn’t support the union. “He has made his position very clear that he doesn’t support us,” says an employee who agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity. They’re concerned about potential retaliation and exacerbating an already stressful work environment. “All the while, our team has been setting records for the work we’re doing. [Everyone is] performing above and beyond still. They’re doing it all without overtime, too.”

Stamets denies this. He emphasizes that he and the company’s leadership “stand strongly in support of employee’s rights to vote on a union, and think the better informed they are, the better the outcome for all.”

Stamets tells DoubleBlind that he was a member of a woodworker’s union in the early 1970s and believes labor unions can be an appropriate organization for some businesses and employees. He points out that LiUNA is a construction union and is concerned that it wouldn’t be suitable for Fungi Perfecti.

“A construction union does not appear to be a good fit for Fungi Perfecti. Nevertheless, we recognize and respect the right of workers to seek representation,” Stamets tells DoubleBlind. “We believe our eligible employees should have an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of membership in this specific union and exercise their democratic right to vote. We expect that within the next month approximately 50 eligible employees will be able to make an informed decision about who they believe will best represent their interests.”

Construction workers make up the majority of LiUNA’s membership, but they also represent workers from other industries. Our source states that they shopped around and chose LiUNA partly because of the work it’s done in the construction industry. It’s also been in existence since 1911. “Its representation of construction workers shows that it is a strong and effective union,” says our source. “The construction industry is relatively resilient, similar to trucking or longshoremen, underscoring LiUNA’s ability to represent workers in enduring sectors.”

Fungi Perfecti workers told DoubleBlind that one of their primary goals is to secure consistent insurance coverage. Over the past six years, the company changed insurance providers five times, leaving workers unable to receive adequate health care coverage, they said.

“Five changes in six years is a lot to go through, especially throughout the pandemic when wait times to be seen by a new doctor was nearly six months to a year,” one worker tells us. “It basically creates a non-benefit when it’s changing that much.”

In response, Stamets says that due to being a company of its size, Fungi Perfecti has little sway over insurance providers and often has to eat the cost of rising prices of providing health care to its employees. He says the quality of coverage hasn’t wavered and is committed to providing excellent benefits to all eligible employees.

Stamets says they have switched healthcare plans to ensure the best possible coverage but that those changes come with challenges. The company gets quotes from insurance providers and selects the best one-year contracts. “Year after year, it gets more expensive, which we absorb so that we maintain the same high level of coverage,” he says. “We have not chosen to cut or weaken our healthcare options as we firmly believe that quality healthcare is incredibly important, and we want to provide the best coverage possible to all. The level and amount of benefits have not been impacted and have been consistently available to all eligible employees.”

DoubleBlind obtained a chart comparing Fungi Perfecti and LiUNA’s healthcare coverage. Stamets says that what’s currently offered to employees is better than what LiUNA provides. “Our Medical Insurance benefits are far better, in general, than the LiUNA Union. If our employees are forced to move to Liuna’s plan, and get a catastrophic illness, they are far better staying with Fungi Perfecti, LLC, on multiple levels.”

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One of the benefits of going to a union contract model, our source says, is that insurance will be more consistent. “Our contracts can mandate that we are provided consistent insurance coverage for three years, so we don’t end up having to change insurance every year, regardless of the reason.”

Pay is another reason workers are pushing to unionize. Washington, where Fungi Perfecti is headquartered, is known for its high cost of living. Statistics show that the Evergreen State has the third highest gas prices in the US; it’s the fourth most expensive state to buy a home; and has the fourth highest combined sales tax rate. It’s also the fourth most expensive state to buy groceries. 

“We are way behind the median income level for our roles in our city,” our source tells DoubleBlind. “There have been no cost of living adjustments, which is another big reason for this push.”

Stamets refutes that, saying Fungi Perfecti offers competitive pay, and paid sick, vacation, and holidays, among other benefits, which are listed online. They also offer bonuses and a 401K match.

LiUNA Local 252 encourages union members and community supporters to stand in solidarity with Fungi Perfecti workers as they form their first-ever bargaining unit.

Fungi Perfecti employees also made it clear that they are not calling for a boycott. The best way to support them is to spread the word about their unionization effort and show public support. 

“In no way is this an attack on Paul or the company,” says our source from Fungi Perfecti. “We want to keep working at Fungi Perfecti. We want Fungi Perfecti to thrive. We are just asking for a seat at the table and to be seen as citizens in the workplace instead of just workers.”

A previous version of this story featured a quote from the Stand about the American Labor Group sharing propaganda about unions that contained lies. It was removed due to a lack of verification.

Correction: The most recent version of this story changed the subheading to reflect that a “group” of employees at Fungi Perfecti is seeking to unionize. A previous version omitted that Fungi Perfecti gives its employees bonuses and a 401K match. For fairness, it now includes that the founder of the American Labor Group started his career as a union-side attorney. It states that the NLRB determines the timeline for a vote to unionize and who is eligible and Fungi Perfecti has not heard back about when the vote will occur. Additionally, we have clarified that The Stand broke the news about Fungi Perfecti workers’ unionization efforts on May 3rd. Lastly, we removed a quote that The Stand reported about the American Labor Group distributing anti-union propaganda due to an inability to verify.

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