Labor unions are more active today than they have been for years, giving new importance to the Rapid Response Team to prevent unionization and to manage union campaign should one start. Long before a union organizing campaign starts, there are signs it’s on the horizon. Long before employees become open to union representatives or considering unionization, there are indications employees have unmet needs and challenges.
Instead of waiting for unionization to become an expensive probability, a better strategy for many companies is for management to stay in tune with the workforce. Create a well-trained group of leaders who talk, talk, talk, talk more about unions with employees, and encourage conversations and questions.
Deciding to Invest in a Rapid Response Team
There is a time and place for a Rapid Response Team. Not every company needs one. Many don’t have much union activity in their area, or unionization is not considered a risk. In that case, having a union-dedicated website that explains the company’s position on unions, reinforces the positive aspects of working for the company and focuses on employee engagement is a best practice.
For companies in industries or areas where unions are aggressively active, and companies that have already dealt with potential union organizing in the past, the Rapid Response Team is crucial. If in doubt about the best course of action, the best course of action is to consult with professionals, like those at UnionProof, who has worked with companies of all sizes to assess the need.
Just saying managers should talk transparently about unions and welcome employee questions put fear in some employers’ hearts. Not talking about unions doesn’t stop unions from approaching employees, but it does encourage employees to keep anything to do with unions under management’s radar. It’s impossible to detect the early warning signs if no one is looking for or can recognize them.
Without trained leaders engaging employees, it’s more unlikely card signing can be successfully shutdown (through legal means) if employees take their employer by surprise with an election petition. Also, the employer’s risk of losing a union election significantly increases if unprepared to respond legally, rationally, and thoughtfully to an organizing campaign, rather than emotionally and frantically.
Most importantly, if leaders have failed to make their position on unions clear regularly and have not engaged employees to build their trust and a positive culture, employees aren’t going to ask questions, raise issues, or be willing to discuss unionization. Unions become a taboo subject. This is true whether or not you decide to form a Rapid Response Team.
Surprise! They’re Here!
When the character of Gomer Pyle on the old Andy Griffith show was awestruck by anything, he would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” That’s how employers feel when they learn a union organizing campaign is in the works. Without a Rapid Response Team in place, there is a much greater chance of being surprised, and the odds of feeling panicky much higher.
The concept of rapid response is not new and takes many forms. Did you know that unions have developed rapid response networks? For example, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC) in Western Massachusetts created one called “Sanctuary in the Streets” (SIS). The worker center can quickly organize restaurant workers and farmworkers, and the network runs a 24-hour emergency hotline with bilingual responders who instruct immigrant callers on their constitutional rights, connects them to services, and activates the rapid response team.
Worker committees set the network priorities. Partnerships and affiliations are religious organizations and unions, like the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council (federation of more than 50 labor unions). The PVWC can quickly activate people using Zoom, text messages, Facebook, and WhatsApp, in addition to making phone calls and spreading the news word-of-mouth. This is just one such program of many and reflects the sophistication of unions and the union forces that employers must deal with on a routine basis.
Though this rapid response effort targets immigrant workers, unions have already proven their efficiency at using rapid response principles to take advantage of the fears of worker safety related to the COVID-19 pandemic to gear up for an organizing push rapidly. One example is at hospitals where unions are energized. Unions representing nurses and other hospital workers quickly and aggressively began advocating for their members to get personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and more staff. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t stop at current members. A member of National Nurses United said that people who have never been part of an organizing campaign and were never union members are upset too and are expressing interest in organizing.
Union representatives are also proactively going to nonunion hospitals to promote organizing. And some hospitals already involved in a union organizing campaign are seeing a significant increase in union signed cards. Employers are spending millions of dollars to fend off organizing efforts, including making costly concessions to meet demands for hazard pay and sick leave, and are hoping health care unions will work with them to find mutually acceptable solutions.
Union Strategy: Network, Communicate, Leverage
It doesn’t take a pandemic to energize unions. They’re taking advantage of the current social and political turmoil in the country at every opportunity.
The four takeaways from the two stories just presented are:
- Unions are prepared to respond rapidly to any employees or workers who express an interest in unionizing or protesting
- Additionally, unions can network rapidly via a well-designed communication system that takes advantage of multiple technologies like social media and texting
- Unions are experts at using their networks to take their message and efforts to nonunion businesses, using their successes at other places as leverage
- Lastly, unions can appear quickly and unexpectedly (surprise, surprise, surprise!)
The unions are not waiting for employees to approach them. They are actively and routinely seeking new members, disgruntled employees, and vulnerable employers, so they can initiate a union organizing campaign. It’s a rude awakening for any employer to be served with a petition for a union election suddenly, but it’s made worse when it’s a surprise.
Once the petition is served, events happen quickly. Following is a brief review of the union campaign timeline.
Despite the changes to “ambush election” rules and the very short deadline, the new NLRB rules still enable a union campaign to evolve quickly. For example, under the new NLRB rules that are applied on or after May 31, 2020, the employer has eight business days (10-12 calendar days) to prepare and file a statement of position. Employers who haven’t thought about unions, union campaigns, and union issues are going to have a lot of difficulties meeting the deadline with a quality response. Think about how long it takes to develop, write, and issue any business policy, especially an HR policy, and it gives perspective.
The new rule gives 14 business days from the initial petition to hold the pre-election hearing, five business days for the employer to post a notice of election, and five business days to file a post-hearing brief. The employer must give the union a list of eligible voting employees within 35 days after petition filing. Once an election is approved, it will take place in 20 days at the earliest, meaning the time period for a petition to contested election is 55 days.
Now imagine having to develop an organizational campaign for a union organizing campaign response within 55 days to stay union-free:
- Develop a statement of position on unionizing
- Work with union-free consultants and a labor attorney to analyze the petition and the complaints on which it is based
- Train managers and supervisors on the organization’s position on unions
- Train leaders on T.I.P.S. Rule and F.O.E. Rule (what they can and cannot say)
- Train leaders on dealing with disruptive union supporters
- Train leaders on union tactics and their arguments they use to convince employees
- Set up a system to respond to NLRB requests for information
- Develop and regularly update a union-free website
- Prepare and distribute printed and virtual materials to employees
- Develop an online FAQs section for employees to give them a voice and to provide management feedback
- Create a system for responding to union complaints and grievances (there will be many)
- Develop a system for responding quickly to an increase in employee grievances (there will be many)
- Review all employee handbook policies to ensure they don’t offer opportunities for charges of unfair labor practices
- Convince doubting employees they work for a fair employer they can trust
Before a Petition is Even a Gleam in the Employee Eyes
The last item is one of the most important. Once employees distrust their employer, it’s difficult to regain trust in 55 days. The best strategy for staying union-free is starting well before a petition is even a possibility. A Rapid Response Team is a group of managers who consult with union experts and labor law attorneys to prepare in advance for potential union activity. However, their primary role is to engage employees, so they trust the employer enough to discuss unions openly regularly.
Developing a Rapid Response Team is a critical strategy for staving off unions in companies at risk because the members are like internal ambassadors, engaging employees in honest, informed conversations about unions, and problem resolution. The Rapid Response Team is always prepared to answer employee questions about unions, the impact of unions on employees and their families, the realities of a collective bargaining contract, and employees’ rights under the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act). If employees are asking questions about these issues, it’s almost certain a union organizing campaign is in the works.
Therefore, the ideal Rapid Response Team has two main functions: 1) keep the organization union-free, and 2) respond to a union organizing campaign in progress. Developing and maintaining an effective team requires some effort and an investment of resources (which is why it is recommended for at-risk companies and not all companies). You need to:
- Select cross-functional team members from different leadership levels
- Determine the extent of the team’s responsibilities, i.e., responding to disruptive workplace issues as they arise to avoid unionization, holding ongoing conversations with employees, managing the union organizing campaign, etc.
- Develop team members on the leadership behaviors that contribute to a culture of open communication, employee engagement, honesty and integrity, fairness and equality, and respect
- Train team members on the rules of communication about unions and employee rights so they don’t cross the line and appear to threaten or coerce employees; i.e., holding conversations that are based on active listening, not asking employees questions about unions, not making false promises, etc.
- Train team members on the do’s and don’ts of union campaigns
- Train team members on identifying union organizing activity, i.e., quiet and obvious signs
- Develop a communication strategy with supporting resources regularly and transparently talking about unions, i.e., social media, texts, emails, brown bag meetings, department meetings, forums, videos, etc.
- Provide regular follow-up management training for maintaining the team’s current knowledge of the fundamental law, NLRB decisions relevant to the general workplace (without asking them to be legal experts), union specific information, holding engaging conversations with employees, etc.
- Develop a strong support system for the team that includes resources like a union-free website (dark website), campaign material that addresses the benefits of working for the company, communication technologies, printed material, UnionProof tools, etc.
- Conduct periodic union vulnerability assessments to uncover specific issues bubbling up in the workplace, i.e., industry or local unionization rates, turnover rates, rate of employee grievances, employee feedback, etc.
- Identify the unions that present the most risk to the organization based on industry research or local activity, and train team members on their tactics and strategies to better detect signs of organizing or the union’s influence on employees and develop a targeted, targeted, insightful response
The Rapid Response Team is important to staying union-free, but only if its members are well-trained in engaging employees and have access to the right resources. Members must know how to initiate non-threatening conversations with employees and how to respond to questions. Should a union organizing campaign start, despite the team’s efforts, its members are already trained to respond quickly and appropriately to the union activity and have the union-free resources in place.
Right for Your Company?
If a Rapid Response Team is right for your company, Projections, UnionProof, and A Better Leader can provide all necessary resources, from developing a union-free website to leadership training via eLearning and videos to providing communication materials targeting employees. With decades of experience working with companies of all sizes striving to avoid unionization, you gain access to in-depth knowledge about all things union.