How To Use Firebrands to UnionProof your Company

Firebrands Can Keep You Union FreeWhat if you were told that your greatest threat to remaining union-free… could also be your best ally? Here’s a secret: you can flip a union organizer’s strategy on its head – labor unions often identify employees that have complaints. They look for your most outspoken employees, and turn them into in-house organizers. Here at UnionProof, we call them “firebrands”.  Sounds provocative, doesn’t it? A firebrand is “a person who initiates a course of action,” someone who deliberately creates trouble.  Union organizers historically look for volatile personalities to lead initiatives.

So, what does a firebrand look like? Take this year’s case of the 7,000 striking USW oil refinery workers at 15 Tesco, BP, Marathon and LyondellBasell plants in 7 states.  The internal organizers – the firebrands – convinced the workers that the strike was about health and safety concerns.  One major concern was a new Fatigue Policy on which the union spin was, “they (the company) have in fact made the workers more fatigued. It’s management by stress.”

Now, your gut reaction might be to figure out a way to remove or fire these types of individuals.  But what if Tesoro management had been able to identify the firebrand leaders in the early stages and involved them in the Fatigue Policy planning.  Then, the firebrand leaders would have been on the hook to both present the plan to their fellow employees and gather support for it.  Instead, they had a six-week strike that ended with the employees calling their new 4-year agreement a sellout by the USW.  No one wins.

But here’s a new approach: you have the option of taking a less traditional stance when it comes to dealing with these high-risk, “firebrand” employees. This strategy provides an opportunity to actually not just avoid unions, but become truly Union Proof. By viewing firebrands as allies, you can capitalize on employee discontent and address issues through employee involvement, not unionization.

Why Firebrands Make Powerful Allies

Firebrand personality types have a remarkable ability to mobilize employees based on discontent. In many companies , these individuals have the ability to organize around even the most minor sources of dissatisfaction. Consider the case of the private bus drivers who unionized due to discontent over toilet paper, true story. The employees’ frustration over being limited to just 4-5 squares of toilet paper wasn’t a life-threatening issue, but it was enough to organize. When a firebrand leads an organizing drive, they have the powerful ability to take that toilet-paper issue and turn it into a health and welfare issue – “…the Company doesn’t care about your health,” “the Company doesn’t want you to have any breaks, they want to work you to death…” Now, over the last 3 years, almost 30,000 school bus and transit workers have been organized by the Teamsters.

So, your Firebrand personalities have the ability to incite rage in their coworkers over minor issues by turning employee scuttlebutt over small factors (like toilet paper) into full-blown rage. Before leadership knows what’s happened, the employees are organizing around the idea that management is against bathroom breaks or doesn’t care about employee sanitation. A situation that could have been easily rectified with some employee involvement, that would cost the company far less.

Fortunately, firebrand personalities are easy to recognize. They’re charismatic, well-spoken and have the ability to influence others. To remain union-proof, it’s crucial to recognize these employees and make them allies before any kind of union organizing activity begins. By providing an open door and ear to firebrands, companies can recognize and address sources of employee dissatisfaction without costly unionization.

How to Capitalize on Discontent

Forbes’ Joel Barras writes that union avoidance strategies require ongoing, positive relationships between employees and leadership. Management needs to listen, but they must also take action to address sources of discontent. Allowing your firebrands to act as a mouthpiece between employees and leadership can provide a direct line to the sources of frustration. By capitalizing on discontent, employers can communicate that they care about employee well-being and effectively work to union-proof their company.

Firebrand personality types can either be your greatest risk or your most valuable allies. By working to identify and work closely with these vocal workers, your organization can address employee discontent before organizing begins and these firebrands become union leaders.


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