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Barstool Sports' founder says he'll fire unionizing workers--labor officials say "no way"

  • Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy threatened to fire "on the spot" any employee at his blogging company who sought advice on forming a union.
  • The threat, issued over Twitter, brought a rebuke from New York state labor regulators, who reminded Portnoy that federal law prohibits terminating workers for union-related activities.
  • New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also weighed in, tweeting that bosses who threaten workers for trying to unionize can be sued "on the spot."

Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy has a message for employees who are interested in unionizing: "I'll fire you on the spot," he tweeted this week. That naked threat is now prompting an equally blunt response from labor regulators and unions. 

"We say no way, no how to intimidation, threats and union busting," the New York State Department of Labor said in firing back at Portnoy, whose sports and culture blogging firm is based in New York City. "It is illegal to take any unfavorable action – including termination – against employees for union-related activities under the National Labor Relations Act. New York is a proud union state."

Portnoy's tweet also drew a response from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.-New York, who warned him that threatening workers who are trying to form a union is "likely breaking the law." She added, "ALL workers in the US have the protected freedom to organize for better conditions." 

The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions, also chimed in, pointing to the section of the National Labor Rights Act of 1935 that prohibits such anti-union behavior. 

The exchanges between Portnoy and labor officials highlight the tension between management and workers who unionize in an effort to protect wages and provide worker rights. Unions, which also engage in collective bargaining, have seen a sharp decline in membership in recent decades, falling from representing 20% of workers in 1983 to just 10.5% today.

The reasons for the decline are complicated, but are partly due to "right to work" laws in many states, which say that workers in a unionized workplace aren't required to become dues-paying members of a union.

But pockets of labor activism are springing up in some industries, including online publishers such as Barstool Sports, which runs a satirical blog about sports and pop culture. Recent digital media outlets hat have unionized include Vice Media, Salon and The Guardian's U.S. unit, with the journalism publication Nieman Reports noting the drivers have been to "bring some rules and rationality to what often seemed like capricious workplace decisions."

Portnoy has voiced his views about these previous labor organizing efforts, although his tone appeared tongue-in-cheek when he wrote in a 2015 blog post about Gawker's unionizing that he hoped his workers tried the same so he could "smash their little union to smithereens ... Oh you think you deserve health insurance? You don't think you should have to work with squirrels in the office? You don't think I should duct tape Hank to the walls? Well now yis can't leave!"

Satire is one thing, but under the law threatening to fire employees who contact a union organizer is another. Portnoy may be laughing all the way to the bank. On Tuesday, he tweeted an image of a $28 t-shirt emblazoned with his face and the words "union buster." 

He added, "Now on sale."

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