Engaging a Union Workforce

Engaging A Union Workforce

You have wanted your employees to decertify the union ever since they voted to unionize. The images of the Oklahoma teacher’s strike on television only confirm your fears as to the potential damage that unions can cause the workplace. The images also strengthen your resolve as an employer to do what it takes to make the union unnecessary in the opinion of your employees. What it takes is a high level of employee engagement, an effective communication system and better leaders.

Surprise! Engagement Is the Legal Path to Decertification

Decertification is a process during which employees elect to terminate union representation. The decertification election is governed by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and years of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and court case decisions. Though you may be tempted to encourage decertification, employer rights and what you are permitted to say are very limited. You cannot offer to assist with decertification, threaten employees with retribution for not decertifying or tell employees not to talk to union representatives.

There is a legal and effective path to decertification: developing high employee engagement, implementing an effective communication system that employees feel free to access without fear, developing and implementing fair human capital policies and procedures, and training leaders on the skills needed for successful engagement of a diverse workforce. Your workforce is probably multicultural, multigenerational and comprised of union and non-union workers. The interesting fact about employee engagement is that good practices apply to all your workers, whether they are union or non-union employees. Therefore, the path to decertification is making unions unnecessary, starting with improving employee engagement.

Putting Employees First

All of this sounds nice in theory, but how does an employer engage union employees? It may seem like an impossible task because labor unions thrive on dividing employees and management. Unions rely on negative messaging to turn people into “victims,” meaning you must change the thinking patterns of your union employees.

DTE Chairman and CEO, Gerry Anderson, discovered in 2007 that workforce engagement scores were very low. He decided to improve them, and by 2017 had turned the engagement scores from the lowest in Gallup’s global database to the highest. DTE’s workforce is unionized, so his plan meant finding a way to engage union members. Though the company hasn’t decertified, Anderson shared his real-world experience in building a union-DTE partnership that put the safety, productivity and well-being of employees first.

You can use some of the knowledge and experience he shared as tools in a broader process of engaging a union workforce. Anderson discovered that company efforts to engage people were mostly improving non-union employee engagement, yet he believed the work environment should be identical for union and non-union employees. Anderson’s turning point came when he attended a meeting with union representatives to celebrate the best safety month in the company’s history, and all the union leaders did was complain. Fed up, Anderson directly told the union representatives that this relationship was not working, and they needed to find a way to work together for the benefit of employees. An amazing discovery was made: By including the union leaders in the process, they came on board with management by engaging in a more positive manner.

The engagement problems included poor front-line leaders who didn’t understand the importance of employee engagement and didn’t have the right skills. The leaders underwent training to improve their engagement skills, and the union recognized the improvement. Engaging a union workforce requires the same management skills as engaging a non-union workforce. Employees should feel free to discuss their issues with supervisors and leaders without fear of retribution. There should be equitable Human Resources policies and procedures involving compensation, benefits, paid leave, terminations and promotions. The communication system should give employees opportunities to offer suggestions, discuss personal and work issues, work assignments and timeframes. Employees should feel safe at work and have access to the resources needed to perform at their highest level.

Leaders Pave the Path to Decertification

The differences between engaging a union versus non-union workforce are mostly due to contractual, legal and administrative rules that define what employers can say and do. The NLRA and the NLRB have determined the behaviors considered to be unfair labor practices. On the other hand, non-union employees can engage the EEOC and the NLRB when they believe you haven’t treated them fairly. Ideally, you will create a supportive workplace culture and a leadership team skilled in engaging all employees. CEO Anderson believes “leadership drives almost everything.” Skilled leaders pave the path most likely to lead to a decertification election. Why should people pay dues for representation they don’t need?

About the author

Walter Orechwa

Walter is Projections’ CEO and the founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.