(Part two in a two part series. Find part one here.)
Many employers will resist a union organizing effort, using a variety of approaches. It’s important to understand that unions are, and always will be, aggressive in their efforts to find new, dues-paying members. As your labor counsel will tell you, your response should always be legal and protective of employee rights – while exercising your own.
Opposing any union is a difficult process because of their intimidation practices and willingness to take legal measures. Typical employer responses often include one of these four strategies:
- General or specific resistance – Employers resist union organizing by spending most of their effort on explaining the negative aspects of unions. They try to convince employees that union representatives are violent, liars and self-serving and only want access to union dues. The problem is that focusing only on negativity can easily lead to the opposite of the desired reaction. For example, employees may believe the employer is so negative about unions because the company only cares about keeping wages and benefits as low as possible.
- Legal stand – In this approach, the employer doesn’t show outright resistance to unions. Instead, the employer lets employees know they have every right to vote as they see fit, but quietly encourages them to vote against the union. It’s difficult for an employer to remain non-union when pitting politeness against aggressiveness.
- Promoting the company – Ideally, the employer response has a positive tone. Instead of being anti-union, the employer is pro-employee. This involves developing a message that focuses on the positive aspects of working for the company, like competitive wages and benefits, supportive culture, responsive grievance procedures and various perks. Employers can communicate with employees via customized videos, eLearning, websites and in person.
- Weak response – Sometimes, the employer has been taken by surprise and is not prepared to respond. As a result, most of the union campaign time is spent trying to develop a response, and in the meantime, the union forges ahead with their efforts to get over 50 percent of employees voting “yes” to unionization. Lack of employer preparation can lead to a tepid response, and that can amount to virtually no response against an aggressive union campaign.
Addressing Specific Issues During the Campaign
Unions focus on a variety of issues because different issues will resonate with different employees. They include:
- Working conditions, especially as they concern safety
- Work schedule or hours
- Seniority or promotion policies
- Wage rates
- Unreasonable job expectations
- Employee replaced due to increased usage of contracted labor
- Employees replaced due to technology
- Job security
- Working hours/schedules
- Grievance policies and procedures
- Worker participation in decision-making, especially when it involves wages, hours and working conditions
This is not a complete list of possible issues, but only a list of the major issues.
Employers also have issues concerning union organizing like:
- Inflated salaries and benefits
- Increased number of time-consuming grievances that must go through a union representative
- Inability to manage employees in the most productive manner, even when it benefits them as well as the company
- Inability to promote employees based on merit rather than seniority
- Protection of incompetent or non-productive employees, creating hardships on coworkers
- Strikes and work slowdowns
- Union corruption
- Union verbal and physical acts of violence
- Union dues employees must pay (equates to a pay cut)
It’s important to focus on a few critical issues because employees will be overwhelmed when presented with too many. The union is likely to present a laundry list of complaints about the employer. The employer’s response should choose the issues of most importance to employees. This issues are combined with the materials prepared in advance to create a customized response.
The employer response during the campaign must framed with a pro-employee focus. Promoting the benefits of working for the company is much more effective than criticizing the union, especially when millennials and Gen Z make up a large percent of the workforce. Younger generations are focused on issues like flex scheduling, job security in the ‘gig economy’ and advancement opportunities.
Notice that younger workers may see unions as champions of advancement opportunities, while the employer knows clauses in a union contract could limit the employer’s ability to promote employees based on merit. It’s the same issue from two different perspectives. This is typical opposing forces characteristic of a union campaign.
Another point to keep in mind is that younger generations of employees are concerned with employer behaviors in communities and their markets of operation. Corporate social responsibility is integrated with management decision-making and ethics. A modern union issue is supervisors who ask employees to do something the employees consider socially or environmentally wrong, but the employees have no work control.
Ideally, there is a positive UnionProof culture that has been cultivated before any union approached employees. The response during a union organizing campaign wouldn’t be much different than what employees hear on a daily basis. Hand-in-hand with the UnionProof culture is being an employer of choice. The union is not likely to be successful if employees believe they’re working for a transparent company that treats its employees very well.
Managing the Union Campaign
A major decision that employers must make is who to include in the response to the union campaign. It’s often a mix of internal and external people. The external people could be an attorney and/or a specialist who can guide the company’s response to the union campaign. The internal people who will direct the response can include employees from the CEO and down. The CEO should send a message that reinforces the company’s perspective on unionization and the reasons unions are not needed.
Employers can expect some things to happen during the campaign. One is an increase in grievances filed with the NLRB. Another is that unions will push the boundaries of the law, often crossing the line. All supervisors and managers need to be fully informed on company policies and the laws concerning a union campaign.
Post Union Organizing Campaign
Now what? If your employees vote to unionize, you need to make a good faith effort to negotiate a union contract. It’s just as important to analyze the specific reasons the employees chose to vote for a union, and begin the process of making the changes that increase employee engagement and transparency. Lack of employee engagement and transparency are frequently the root causes of a union campaign. When a union wins an election, it is time to begin a new process that leads to union decertification. Always remember that nothing in life is permanent, and that includes unionization.