UnionProof frequently discusses the importance of employers staying positive at all times. This positive approach to employee relations pays dividends even when employees are represented by a union. When it’s time to negotiate the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), using a negotiations website to communicate with employees can mean the difference between a positive approach and one that’s full of friction and strife.
The positive path, means union and company representatives strive to exchange ideas and information, and are willing to compromise. Usually, in this case, the employer has developed good relationships with employees in the bargaining unit. The negative approach means the employer has an antagonistic relationship with union representatives. This automatically makes contract negotiations a contentious process.
Either way, the path is often determined before negotiations start because relationships are built over time. The consequences of doing a poor job of communicating prior to and during contract negotiations can be damaging. Relationships suffer, and it can be a waste of time trying to get to a point of ratification. In a worst-case scenario, represented employees may decide to strike or protest, hurting community relationships, brand image and company operations.
Take Control of Your Company’s Story
Naturally, as a company leader, you’ll want to go down the positive path. This approach means avoiding a lot of (often costly and time-consuming) problems during contract negotiations. Even more importantly, great communication keeps team members engaged in the process. Positive communications minimize the chance of poor relations developing and creating a toxic workplace – something that can endure long after negotiations end. Ideally, your managers and supervisors have been developing and using effective leadership skills all along.
Your challenge during negotiations is keeping the workforce informed of the facts, the process, and the reasoning behind employer decisions and actions – all with a positive perspective.
Get the communication process right, and you will:
- Strengthen the company’s relationship with employees
- Build trust by presenting the facts of the process and the company’s decisions
- Tell the company’s story first, rather than letting the union representatives control the narrative
- Emphasize the positive aspects of the company
- Deliver a consistent message to all bargaining unit employees
- Humanize the process of negotiations
Before Negotiations Begin
There are many steps an employer should take in order to promote positive communications with the workforce. First, begin drafting a website 4-6 weeks before negotiations begin. Your website is one of the most powerful communication tools your can utilize.
Your negotiations website is an effective way to present the company’s unique voice. Share your company philosophy and senior management’s perspectives. Provide reassurances the company will work with the union representatives in good faith. Start with a positive statement on the front page that makes it clear the company is committed to negotiating a fair contract that enables the company to remain competitive through the important work of its employees.
Additionally, stating the company’s hopes and expectations for the upcoming negotiations can set the stage for employees. Certainly, union representatives will be telling employees what they expect. The Teamsters have even published a manual on bargaining titled, “Collective Bargaining: How to Negotiate Teamster Contracts.” Learn as much as you can about your unions’ approach to the bargaining table. Insights into the union’s expectations and approach can help you communicate clearly with your employees.
Features of a Negotiations Website
Your negotiations website will be available 24/7, and can be reviewed by employees and that all-important “secondary audience” at home, without fear.. Your effective website for communicating during collective barganing has the following features:
- Links to other forms of communications – posted online videos, social media, FAQ page, etc.
- Union-specific information that explains how the union is approaching these negotiations
- “In the news” links for sharing relevant actions and decisions, letters, news reports, management statements
- Negotiations progress updates or items still needing resolution
- Information on the impact of changes that may arise out of negotiations, explanation as to why decisions were made,
- Clarification of any untrue or misleading statements that may be made by union leadership along with the fact-checking details
- Explanations of things like employee rights during negotiations
- Tactics the union may have used with other companies
- Links to helpful resources, like the NLRB
- Link to the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA)
- Signup for employees who want text and/or email updates
- If appropriate, also give employees the ability to ask questions of management via an online form.
If your workforce is multilingual and needs communication in their preferred language, don’t forget to develop your negotiations website in multiple languages,
Sharing Information Throughout the Negotiations Process
Your website is a critical forum for making the business case for the negotiations by sharing important information. In Erie County Technical School v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, 1818 C.D. 2016 (2017), it was determined that employers can communicate with employees in a non-coercive manner concerning the status of negotiations. The communications cannot be an attempt to negotiate directly with the employees in the bargaining unit.
You can include:
- Industry benchmarks for compensation, benefits, productivity and more that will form the starting point for the negotiations
- Current compensation schedules and how they compare in the industry and locally
- All the benefits employees receive
- Market conditions that drive business decisions and will influence negotiations
- Carefully spelled out anticipated changes that will arise out of negotiations and their potential impact on business operations that will be addressed during negotiations.
- Statements on issues about things like wage rates, work hours, healthcare premiums, pensions and other benefits, or any other negotiation items
- Statements on the aspects of management-employee relationships with the intent of promoting contract agreement and/or positive working relationships post-contract, including:
- Encouraging employees and management to work to solve problems together
- Emphasizing the value of management and employees working together
- Emphasizing the policies, practices and personnel already in place that can help with day-to-day problems
- Discussing the facts around the additional operational costs that unionization adds
- Facts about the union that are relevant to their current situation. This can include any recent strikes and the tactics used, charges and convictions of corruption, their approach to bargaining, impact on other businesses such as plant closings due to higher expenses, Unfair Labor Practices filed against the union, etc.
- Share typical union behaviors that violate the NLRA, i.e. threatening employees with job loss if they don’t support the union; giving preference in a hiring hall based on race or union activities; fining or otherwise punishing employees who criticize union officers, etc.
- Address unique situations, like the COVID-19 impacts
PRO TIP: Keep all statements made on your negotiations website factual. Don’t violate the NLRA by making what could be construed as threats or coercion. Keep your statements positive by emphasizing the goal of minimizing impacts on employees to the greatest extent possible.
Once the website is live, announce and promote it in multiple ways. On launch day, begin with a captive audience meeting (in person or online via screenshare call) to share the site and it’s features. Your supervisors should also inform employees regularly, so be sure to update them anytime new information is added to the site.
Consider sending emails and letters to home, and texting employees specific links to the site’s pages if appropriate. Use communication channels employees are familiar with, such as a company intranet. Hang posters with a QR code, allowing team members to access the site directly on their phones. Consider innovative ideas such as wallet cards, or team t-shirts with the URL.
During negotiations, your goal is to keep employees and their family members informed. This is a stressful experience for everyone because so much is riding on the outcome. Good communication with employees can reduce anxiety and demonstrate management’s concern for the well-being of the workforce.
With transparency at the forefront, use the FAQ page of your negotiations website to publish answers to employee questions. This also provides you with an opportunity to give team members feedback reviewed by a labor professional. Pre-populate the FAQ page with expected questions and update them throughout the negotiations.
There are four major benefits your company will see by including and maintaining your FAQ page:
- Identifying some or even all of your employees’ needs and concerns, based on their questions
- Learning about employee perceptions about the negotiations process and management’s role in it
- Strengthening your culture of authenticity, transparency and honesty, building employee trust along the way
- Gaining opportunities to clarify the company’s position on issues and the business case related to that position.
Be sure your negotiations website explains developments as they arise, leaving no room for employees to wonder what’s going on. This approach also ensures the company keeps the story aligned with what employees are experiencing day-to-day. You can address letters and and any handouts the union provides. You can also explain or reinforce the reasons for agreeing or not agreeing to certain union demands. Finally, be sure to express confidence that the company and union negotiators will continue to pursue an agreement.
Use Social Media to Report the Facts
Incorporating social media into your negotiations website is an excellent strategy for keeping employees informed. Keep employees and the public up-to-date with timely Tweets and Facebook posts. Update employees regularly to demonstrate a true desire for transparency. Whenever the negotiations website is updated, publish a link and encourage followers to revisit the website and get the facts.
Your negotiations website can also a great tool for communicating with the public. The reality is that contract negotiations are often public knowledge, as unions utilize social media to rally community members and provide members with progress updates.
In one example described by IRI Consultants, during one especially contentious bargaining session, the union posted YouTube videos that supposedly showed healthcare workers working in unsafe conditions. The union was also posting erroneous messages about patient care. Communication specialists developed a counter-campaign that highlighted the health system’s commitment to quality patient care and a great workplace. Videos highlighting employees talking about their pride in their work were made public for community members.
The negotiations campaign also included social media advertising, focusing on all the positive things the company had done to benefit the community, like health screenings. In this way, your negotiations website can be the foundation for your overall communication strategy. Making it public can ensure the public is not relying solely on the union for information.
Make Use of Video
Video is another powerful tool that can make your negotiations website highly engaging and effective. The example given in the previous section was one in which the company used publicly distributed videos to counter union damage to the company’s reputation. Videos are also powerful when posted on the negotiations website itself. Video can be used to positively influence employee relations by delivering personalized messages from management to show strong support and caring for employees. Share videos of employees reinforcing the company as a great place to work; the goal is to keep morale high and focus on the positive.
The negotiations website offers another advantage, beyond keeping communication open with employees. Staying legal and having the ability to make changes quickly can be a true asset during what can be a volatile time. The NLRB has published a long list of do’s and don’ts for bargaining in good faith with union representatives. It’s easy to get charged with an Unfair Labor Practice if a supervisor makes a statement like, “we should just bypass the union and deal directly together,” or “I’m pretty sure the company is withdrawing recognition of the union,” when the union still enjoys majority support.
Employees may get antsy and wonder why more progress isn’t being made. Of course, the company can’t make any changes before there is an agreement. With a negotiations website, employees gain a better understanding of these rules.
You can’t try to force employees to accept the company’s position, but you can make realistic, defensible statements about the company’s position on various negotiating items. The website also protects the employee’s right to listen (or not listen) and receive (or not receive) what the company has to say.
Prepare for Unions to Leverage Unique Issues
The COVID pandemic is a good example of an unusual situation that unions often leverage. Though a pandemic will not last forever, negotiations will cover new rules that are likely to remain in place unless the business protects its rights to terminate special compensation, like hazard pay, or to change work hours and schedules.
There are many issues you can discuss with the union before negotiations start and while a union contract is in place, including layoffs, new safety requirements, schedules, working hours and other aspects of operations through the lens of special circumstances. The point is to be prepared to discuss what the employer should do during the pandemic, or any other business-disrupting event in the future, and what will happen once the event ends.
Time for the Contract Ratification Vote
Upon reaching a tentative agreement, a Memorandum of Understanding is developed. The MOU explains all the contract elements that union members will vote on. The day comes when there will be a vote up or down on contract ratification. At this point, the negotiations website has smoothed the way to ratification by keeping voting members informed, keeping the negotiations on track with the truth, and preserving the employee-employer relationship.
If the contract is ratified, the company can post an announcement on the website, openly thanking employees for their support for the contract and the positive aspects for employees and the company. For example, the announcement could mention any forward-thinking plans that have been approved as part of the agreement.
If the contract is not ratified, the website should then be updated with a letter explaining the company’s position, business case for the needed concessions, and legal options. The employer and union representatives will likely go back to the bargaining table and try again. Serious issues can arise when a contract is not ratified, like employees striking, or if the contract has expired, an employer called lockout in an attempt to stop unions from harming the business financially when contract negotiations fail.
The negotiations website doesn’t guarantee success at the bargaining table, or that employees will ratify a new contract. It does provide the most advantageous communication process to keep employees engaged during what is often a difficult process. Employer-employee relationships are built on trust based on excellent communication, and communication with employees shouldn’t stop due to contract negotiations. In fact, keeping employees informed is crucial to minimizing the two biggest inherent risks in the process – alienation of employees and disruption of the business.
UnionProof, in collaboration with A Better Leader and Projections, Inc, specializes in developing effective websites and other communication tools for employers to connect with employees about unions, no matter what stage of the process the company is in – from working to stay union free to contract negotiations.