How Unions Prevent Better Performers

Unions can have a serious negative impact on the companies whose employees they organize. There are some obvious ones, like union contracts making it difficult to terminate employees, but there are also more subtle ones, like management’s difficulty in enforcing reasonable sick leave policies. Issues of union work rules, seniority and employee termination often tie the hands of employers who need to discipline employees for poor performance, frequent violations of employer policies or behaviors that threaten the safety of consumers and co-workers. A disengaged culture develops, leading to lower productivity and the pitting of management and employees against each other.

Constantly Challenging Management

The real-world stories of unions challenging management are unending. In a recent example, the Washington, D.C. Metro system adopted a policy in March 2017, requiring workers to give 72 hours’ advance notice for pre-approved sick leave. Workers can still call in on the same day, as long as it’s not less than an hour before their shift starts. The policy was enacted after a review revealed that more than 100 employees had used more leave than allowed, threatening the functioning and safety of the transportation system. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 objected, saying the policy change should have been negotiated and was unfair. They then encouraged workers to hand out flyers to passengers claiming their supervisors wanted to make them sick.

Employers can even have problems designating supervisors. In Veolia Transportation Services, Inc. and Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1637, AFL-CIO, Petitioner, Case 28-RC-071479, road supervisors who had disciplined employees were determined not to be supervisors and therefore with no authority to discipline, reward or recommend discipline, though the employer said they did. The NLRB said that giving employee warnings without recommendations for further discipline is not supervisory action, and coaching and counseling don’t constitute discipline, thus such discipline isn’t progressive or consistently applied.

Complicating the Management Process

In September 2013, a Detroit Medical Center supervisor observed a Telemetry Associate sleeping on the job and took a photograph. The employer suspended the employee for three days, issued a final written warning, and put the employee on a one-year disciplinary probation. The union objected. It went to arbitration, and the Arbitrator found that no one could prove how long the person slept and the picture didn’t offer a clear view of the employee’s eyes, but the fact the employee was slumped in the chair had a negative impact on the safety and welfare of patients. The employer had to significantly reduce the disciplinary requirements to a two-day suspension and nothing else.

The NLRB has spent eight years liberalizing interpretations of employee-protected rights. The ability to be an effective leader is greatly impaired as a result. Employees fear talking to each other because someone can misinterpret comments and report them to the union. Frustration leads to managers taking the safe path, avoiding: disciplinary actions, publishing new Human Resources policies, asking employees to assume new job responsibilities and doing terminations for cause.

Even the hiring process is more complicated because an interview question might violate employee rights. In the NLRB versus Bighorn Beverage, Case No. 78-2995, it was determined that asking a job applicant about union membership did not violate the NLRA, but the interview question combined with a job application asking the same thing was inherently coercive. In the current environment, a question that even seems like an attempt to discover employee sentiments about unions can lead to complaints.

Unions also continue to use a practice called “salting.” In the case of NLRB v Beacon Electric Co., No. 07-2554, the courts upheld the NLRB decision that an electrical contractor violated the NLRA by refusing to hire union salts and hired non-union employees instead. Salts are people who apply for positions for the primary purpose of getting access to the workplace in order to unionize employees.

Impact on Workplace Culture

In the unionized workplace, employers often cannot promote and reward people based on high productivity and skills development rather than seniority, because the union will inevitably claim the employer did not follow contract seniority clauses. When an employee (union or non-union) sees a less qualified co-worker get a promotion, it’s disheartening and discourages striving to be a high performer. Union work rules, seniority and job protection for poor-performing workers negatively impact a company long-term. Some companies, like Hostess, have even gone bankrupt because of unions.

Unions tend to create a workplace culture that is more negative than positive, and they certainly tie the hands of employers in the effective management of Human Resources. Case after case has proved this to be true. Keeping unions out of the workplace is important to developing a positive culture where employees are engaged, employer-employee communication is honest and open, and leadership can truly manage the workforce in a way that recognizes productivity and promotes business sustainability.

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.