Do We Still Need to “Avoid Unions” in 2018

Most business leaders agree that when unions step in as intermediaries between employers and employees, both sides lose. Employers find that unions impede their ability to be successful, as they often refuse to bend – even when the organization’s very existence is at stake. Employees often discover that unions don’t deliver on their promises. Unfortunately, by the time they realize this truth, they have lost their ability to work directly with management to resolve issues.

Trends in Unionization

Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) in 1935, employers have made union avoidance a priority. Extensive strategic planning was centered around keeping unions out of the workplace. This ensured that employers and employees could maintain their one-on-one relationship, and employers retained the flexibility to make decisions based on business needs.

Overall, employers have been successful in keeping most workplaces union-free. The Bureau of Labor Statistics started measuring union membership in 1983. At that time, 20.1 percent of the workforce belonged to a union. By 2017, membership was just 10.7 percent of workers. Lawmakers are generally trending away from pro-union legislation, and many regulations that favored unions have been weakened. Recent examples include:

Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors and Brandt Construction Case

Through the 2015 Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors and Brandt Construction case, the NLRB adjusted the definition of “employer.” Before this case, an organization with indirect control over terms and conditions of employment could be considered a joint employer with the business exercising direct control over terms and conditions of employment. Now, the definition of employer is limited to the entity with direct control.

PCC Structurals, Inc. Case

In the 2017 PCC Structurals, Inc. case, the NLRB overturned the 2011 Specialty Healthcare decision. The 2011 decision had made it possible for unions to organize micro-units of employees. Today, the community-of-interest standard is back in place, and employers are free from negotiating with multiple bargaining units.

With so much success, today’s business leaders may be wondering whether avoiding unions should still be an area of focus. After all, the downward trend in union membership makes it tempting to abandon union-avoidance planning in favor of more urgent issues. However, the need for strategizing to keep workplaces union-free has not been eliminated, though the tactics have changed considerably.

Becoming an Employer of Choice

The national conversation around current social issues is often linked back to the decrease in union membership. For example, the subject of health coverage is a hot topic, and unions have taken a strong position in favor of affordable healthcare for all workers and their families. In the area of compensation, unions are funding the Fight for $15 movement, which advocates an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Often, union spokespeople imply or state outright that employees must organize to achieve these goals.

These issues are of critical importance to workers in every industry, and organizations that fail to collaborate with their employees on win-win solutions leave the door open for unionization. Instead of traditional union-avoidance tactics, smart business leaders are focusing their efforts on creating a positive work environment that meets employees’ needs.

Some are reinvesting savings realized with the 2017 tax reform legislation by beefing up compensation, benefits and development. For example, Fifth Third Bancorp and Wells Fargo announced plans to increase their minimum rate of pay to $15 per hour for all employees, and Boeing has promised to earmark $300 million for employee-related and charitable investment. Others are putting their efforts into creating an exceptional team of managers for all-around better work environments.

Changing the area of focus from traditional union-busting to transforming the workplace represents a new method of keeping unions out. Instead of working against unions, businesses are working toward becoming an employer-of-choice. The best defense against the disruption of union organizing is the development of strong relationships between employers and employees.

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