Leadership during union organizing can be a field of landmines. Similarly, dealing with a union (or multiple unions) when the workforce is already unionized can be a consistently sticky situation. What may seem like a reasonable policy, decision or supervisor directive can quickly lead to legal problems and damaged employee-employer relationships.
A real-world case in point: a manager tells an employee to stop using his cell phone during working hours because the company policy clearly states they’re prohibited. The company just earned itself an official employee complaint filed with the NLRB, with the employee claiming his NLRA Section 7 rights were violated. This type of charge – an unfair labor practice – can cause a lot of damage to workforce morale and company culture, in addition to requiring the employer to pay for an expensive defense process. If you’re in charge of leadership during union organizing, would your leaders make similar mistakes?
Simple Directive Turns into Complicated NLRB Case
The National Labor Relations Board issued an Advice Response Memo concerning the case of ADT, LLC (Case 21-CA-209339). There were several issues involved, and one was a company policy that limited the use of personal cell phones in the workplace. The company rule said that cell phones are a distraction in the workplace and can lead to lost productivity and time. The policy stated they could only be used for emergency situations or work-related activities. The problem is that the rule said, “during working hours” instead of “only on breaks and other non-working times.” Thus the employee’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) Section 7 rights were violated.
The NLRB Advice Response Memo points out the NLRB will assess a facially neutral employer rule (one that does not target a particular group) based on “(i) the nature and extent of the potential impact on Section 7 rights, and (ii) legitimate business justifications associated with the requirements.” A company rule that limits all use of cell phones and texting during work hours is unlawful because “employees have a Section 7 right to communicate with each other through non-employer monitored channels during lunch or break periods.” The employer’s interest in preventing distractions, lost time, and lost productivity is only relevant when employees are working. The employer in this case has a unionized workforce with employees represented by the AFL-CIO.
NLRA Violations Turn into Court Cases
This is just one example of how a simple rule and reasonable employer request quickly leads to legal problems. When unions are in the workplace, the employer does retain some rights, just like the employees. However, there’s no doubt that even simple employee complaints will regularly grow into charges of unjust labor practices that are filed with the NLRB. These cases cost the employer a lot of money in legal fees and lost productive time, and contribute to a culture of employee distrust for management.
Employers often inadvertently violate the NLRA. Though the law has been in effect for many years, it’s subject to constant interpretation by the NLRB and courts. What is acceptable yesterday may be unacceptable tomorrow. In a non-union business with a positive culture, employees hopefully feel free to discuss issues with supervisors and know the procedure for taking the issue higher up for resolution. Management decisions are made with transparency and empathy. In the unionized workplace, the employee is required to go through the union representative which is likely to lead to an expensive NLRB case. This is a major strategy that unions use to prove their continuing worth to employees because a unionized workforce can decertify the union at any time. Think of unions as a business that strives to remain relevant and sustainable.
All leaders, from the CEO to the frontline supervisor, must be trained on unions. In many businesses, it’s the executive level leaders who are unaware of the real risks of unionization. They fail to allocate appropriate resources for consultant-led manager and supervisor training, policy and procedure reviews by attorneys, and employee education on unions. Yet, it’s the supervisors who can keep your business union free.
Unions Impact Every Business Activity
What is important to recognize is that understanding employee engagement, union behaviors, and employer and employee rights is crucial because unions impact most business activities – policy and procedure development, employee engagement, responses to employee complaints, employee satisfaction, scheduling, wage schedules, employee promotions, and on the list goes. Leadership hard skills are often what get people hired into or promoted to leadership positions, like strategic planning and technical skills. Leaders need soft skills too, like team building, emotional intelligence, listening, creative thinking, and leadership development.
The two skills are not independent of each other – they work together in an effective leader. Soft skills bolster hard skills. However, soft skills are more important to creating a culture that prevents unionization. The reason is simple: soft skills are the people skills. They’re the skills of leaders who continually improve their leadership skills, know how to listen and provide constructive feedback to employees, intentionally connect with employees, motivate teams to achieve, and promote a positive workplace environment, to name a few. These are the skills that create and maintain the desired organizational culture that prevents unionization.
Developing leaders with employee engagement skills is an important step in preventing unionization. Yet, your managers need to fully understand the impacts of unions on an organization in order to make the connection between employee engagement and unions, and unions and their ability to express their leadership skills.
Unions Impede Positive Employee-Employer Relationships
Unionization brings many changes to an organization. The limitations and impacts reach throughout the organization and even into communities. First, there are impacts on your managers and supervisors. A union contract limits the ability of your supervisors to promote the best employees on merit because seniority is more important than productivity, experience, and education. It’s difficult to layoff or terminate union employees, with an almost guaranteed union objection. Remember, one of the tenants in the union platform designed to win over employees is more job security.
It impedes the employee-employer relationship because unions gain and keep support by making employers appear like adversaries. Though they tout the union-management partnership, the reality is that unions are cooperative only when their demands are met. Once a union contract is in place, they need to consistently find ways to criticize supervisor decisions in order to demonstrate their need and convince employees to vote for the union again when the current contract expires. The manager or supervisor, along with an attorney, will spend time dealing with grievances and arbitrations, costing the company in terms of productivity. This reinforces the union’s “we-they” perspective. Grievance procedures in a union shop, especially those that land at the NLRB, create resentful employees who share that resentment with coworkers. The damage to workforce moral and company culture is swift.
Labor unions discourage individuality, a quality that is necessary in today’s businesses to staying competitive. Union employees are expected to walk a narrow line and aren’t allowed to work outside their formal job duties as defined in agreed upon job descriptions. This is particularly damaging in a work environment where individuality, self-regulation, creativity and innovation are required for competitive success. Unions foment negativity, encouraging employees to keep the threat of strikes or other work slowdowns or stoppages as options. Many of the disadvantages impact managers and supervisors individually because they are unable to freely do their job without fear of union recriminations.
A Lack of Leadership During Union Organizing Can Be An Expensive Proposition
If you don’t take the right actions with your leadership during union organizing, the business itself can be impacted. The cost of unionization is high, ranging from the expense of a union campaign to the expense of higher wages and benefits, legal fees, and lost productivity. Administrative costs soar for several reasons.
The grievance procedure is formalized, requiring more time and legalities. Inevitably, the company will need to add staff to manage the collection of union dues, distribute union-related materials, and meet with union representatives. Unionized companies are less competitive because of the very nature of the collective bargaining process that leads to a firm contract for an extended period of time. The company loses flexibility and agility to respond to a highly competitive and ever-changing marketplace.
The impact of unionization also includes the effects on the company’s reputation. A common union tactic is gaining the support of community members during a disagreement with top leadership over things like wages and work schedules. Remember the resentment towards leadership during union organizing that a disgruntled employee shares with coworkers? It’s shared with friends and family members, too.
One Wrong Move From Leadership Can Lead Directly to Union Organizing
The best course of action regarding your leadership during union organizing is to trust and rely on expert consultants and labor attorneys because these sources maintain current knowledge of the laws and know the short and long-term impacts of a union on any business. Their advice and assistance is forward thinking. High quality leadership training on unions is a key strategy for keeping unions out or for minimizing the negative impacts of unions, if the workforce is already in a union. All it takes to create an expensive legal case or to drive employees to the union is one wrong supervisor directive or decision, one wrong statement on a website, or one wrong rule on a poster.
This is not an exaggeration. It happens every day, like it did to ADT. A consultant can recommend the best training strategies which include things like making available A Better Leader eLearning modules, UnionProof tools and websites focused on educating employees on unions, and TIPS and FOE Explainer videos. The consultant can also assist with recommending in-person training for any group of employees, from C-suite executives to general staff.
In the end, it is all about employee engagement and knowing what the right and wrong things are to say and do. Employees who believe in your company’s values, integrity, honesty and fairness are not going to turn to unions. They know they can talk to their supervisors about work issues and get honest feedback, fair and thoughtful decisions, and equal opportunities to succeed. Communicating effectively, legally and regularly with all employees is at the heart of all strategies for helping employees realize they really don’t need to pay a union to get fair treatment.