GEICO Is Trying to Crush Workers’ Attempts to Form an Independent Union

Lila Balali, a GEICO insurance sales rep, first thought about a union during the pandemic. “I didn’t really know what a union was,” she says, “just that it was something for the employee.”

She was abruptly sent to work with her coworkers. She set up a cramped workspace. “We were taking calls on our cell phones, 40 hours a week, our phone to our ear,” she recalls. “You couldn’t get reimbursed or provided a headset.

“A billion-dollar company — a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary, a Warren Buffet company — was having us go on our cell phones. They charged us for the business. They didn’t want to spend $1,000 on each associate, and we couldn’t stop them.”

She and her coworkers in Buffalo founded GEICO United this year. This is an attempt to form an independent union for the insurance giant. GEICO has 2,600 employees in Buffalo, making it one of the area’s largest employers. Although the union would be the first at the company’s headquarters, more than 50,000 workers at Berkshire Hathaway companies, including BNSF rail workers, are unionized.

“The System Is Flawed”

The pandemic caused more than sending GEICO workers home. It also severely hit GEICO’s bottom line; the company had two of its worst quarters ever in late 2021 and early 2022, a product of the surging values of used cars and the increased cost of repairs. These factors were cited by GEICO, which closed 38 California offices and stopped selling insurance over-the-phone in 18 states.

Balali, a worker at GEICO who has been with the company since 2014, has seen a decrease in sales volume. This has resulted in no bonuses. These bonuses are based on sales performance. In fact, the company has transferred about 30% of the national sales department to other functions. GEICO also laid off hundreds in other departments.

GEICO’s pay and treatment can be inconsistent. The department heads receive a pot of money to distribute raises among their workers. Women and people of color are often left behind.

Sometimes, there is even outright racism. One supervisor Balali had “would walk around and say ‘What’s up, ISIS?’ because I’m Middle Eastern.”

Inspiration close to your home

At first, the only thing that struck me about a union was its potential. Balali heard about Chris Smalls who was an Amazon worker and won the battle against the ecommerce giant.

“I read everything I could find online about [Smalls],” says Balali “He was terminated. Just a regular, average person. At such a large facility… Chris Smalls showed you can organize a location of 8,000 employees without being an established union.”

Balali had another source for inspiration. She would work from her Buffalo home and then head down Elmwood Avenue to Starbucks. Jaz Brisack, a leader of the Starbucks Workers United effort, was there. He helped win the first ever Starbucks union at the Elmwood location last December.

Balali began to research. She began to read. Confessions of a Union Buster, Secrets of a Successful OrganizerJane McAlevey books, even union constitutions. She watched union movies such as Hoffa Norma Rae. “I just started reading whatever I could find,” she said. “I was obsessed.”

She began to talk to her coworkers. “The sales department is small. I have just begun reaching out to my friends. They said ‘Yeah, I’m in.’” A group of seven started meeting for breakfast and coffee.

Going Door to Door

Since their job was fully remote, Balali and her core group didn’t have the option of doing union outreach in the break room or in the hallways. “All of our co-workers, who we counted as friends, we haven’t seen in two and a half years,” she said. “New hires? We don’t know who they are. We don’t even talk to them on the phone.”

The organizers of GEICO United needed to find a way for their 2,600 coworkers in Buffalo.

In New York state, workers in the insurance industry have to be registered as “insurance producers.” Their home addresses are publicly available in a state-run database. Balali and her colleagues compiled a list with the addresses of GEICO employees within the greater Buffalo region over a number of months.

Though Balali sells insurance, she doesn’t make cold calls; the sales she handles are initiated by customers who are in the market for an insurance policy. “I was so scared for the first door I knocked on,” she said

“This lady comes out poker-faced. I couldn’t read her, didn’t know her. We had a flyer that we made that looked terrible the first weekend. It was so ugly. I’m standing there, the woman opens the door, I’m looking at the flyer like, ‘Why did I write so much? This is embarrassing.’

“I’m like, ‘We’re trying to make a union.’ She’s shocked. She’s like, ‘I’ll hear your pitch.’ I start laughing, like, ‘We don’t even have a pitch. We’re just employees.’ That softens her up.

“So we’re talking for a while in front of her door. She pauses. It’s a long pause, back to the poker face. I’m like ‘Oh, shit.’

“She calls her husband out. He’s a GEICO employee too. They both signed right away. They donated. And they’re like, ‘We’re going to get our friends on board.’

“In that first experience we thought, ‘If we want this, we can do this.’ Then we go to the next door and he’s like, ‘I already signed online.’”

Backlash begins

Balali and her core group collected 200 signatures in a month — some through their online authorization card, others from their expanding canvassing operation. Balali estimates that around 80 percent of people would open doors in those early days. The vast majority would then sign a card.

And then, Balali recalls, “the email comes out.”

On August 12, GEICO sent out an email warning its Buffalo employees that union representatives were visiting workers’ homes. The company wrote that it had not “authorized” such visits, and that “you have every right to contact the police.”

A follow-up email was sent by the company a week later. It pointed out Starbucks as an example of a union drive without any benefits for its employees. The email highlighted the benefits and raises that Starbucks offered only at its nonunion stores. The National Labor Relations Board filed a formal complaint against Starbucks for this practice.

GEICO United enlisted pro bono lawyers for help in filing unfair labor practice charges. But the damage was done.

When organizers would go canvassing, most people wouldn’t open their doors. One of the core organizers, who is a Black worker and has been with the company for 10 years, was afraid of reprisals.

Balali insists that despite these setbacks the union is still growing. More and more of the signatures are coming through the online card — which workers are finding by social media and word of mouth. Sometimes, it is the management who inadvertently alerts employees by asking for details.

Follow GEICO United geicounited.orgTwitter: @GeicoUnited?, or on Facebook.