Union Organizing During the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic

We’ve been talking a lot lately about the growing interest in unionization, and the union election statistics reported by the NLRB are proof the trend is real.  It’s important to discuss what union organizing and its’ effects look like during the current 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.

  • Since February 2019, the percent of elections won by unions has exceeded 55% every month except for two. 
  • Since April 2019, the percent of union election wins reached 90% or higher, including as recently as February 2020 (94%). 
  • In June 2019, the election win rate was 55%, and in June 2020, the win rate was 76%. 
  • The total number of employees eligible to vote in union elections in July 2020 surpassed the eligible voters in July 2019.
  • The number of union elections has doubled each month from April to July 2020.
  • The total number of employees eligible to vote has doubled in May, June, and July 2020 compared to each previous month.
  • Since March 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been 246 union elections.
  • During January-July 2020, 374 union elections have taken place.

The trend upward in the number of elections is expected to continue as unions become more visible, more technology-savvy, and more involved in social justice issues. Simultaneously, the number of employees eligible to vote is expected to continue trending upwards. One reason is that more workers who have not historically been union members are now organizing (i.e., tech workers and contracted workers). Unions have received a lot more public attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic Related Demands

During the pandemic, many employers were forced to lay off workers to stay open, had to temporarily close, or changed their business model to accommodate government regulations. As they slowly reopen, many employees found a lot had changed post-COVID-19 – working hours, safety requirements, job duties, attendance requirements, sick leave rules, etc. Many employees are scared of getting the COVID-19 virus, or are scared their jobs are uncertain. They may also be afraid their medical expenses won’t be covered by insurance, or fearful of dealing with the public. Additionally, many employees are afraid of working if they are a high-risk group and are scared of not having enough sick leave should they be required to stay home. 

It didn’t take unions long to realize the pandemic offered many opportunities to inject themselves into the situation as employee advocates. In other words, most employers have become more vulnerable to union organizing. Unions thrive on employee fears and anxieties, even if driven by something other than the employer. Remember, too, that unions represent a bargaining unit but claim to embrace all employees’ concerns. 

There have been many union demands, often turned into a case of “the employer doesn’t care about the health and safety of you or your family.” With Fox Rothschild LLP, Carlos Torrejon did a good job of summarizing union requests based on the pandemic. Here are a few of them, divided into three groups – job security, working conditions, and compensation and benefits

Job Security

  • Employment guarantees for when employers reopen or expand
  • Suspension or relaxation of attendance policies and related disciplinary actions
  • Right to refuse work if the employee has an underlying health condition or a member of a high risk demographic

Working conditions

  • Hazard pay as wage increases or bonuses or some other type of additional compensation (remember it’s very difficult to take something away once given, and the pandemic will end one day)
  • Adjusted work schedules to reduce the number of employees working at the same time (this is not possible for all employers because some work cannot be completed remotely)
  • Employer supplied personal protection equipment and virus testing capabilities.
  • Extra breaks allowed for hygiene purposes, i.e., hand washing and area sanitizing
  • The right to know someone in the workplace has tested positive and how the employer responded

Compensation and benefits

  • Increase in sick leave availability, both paid and unpaid
  • Guaranteed health insurance during leave associated with COVID-19
  • Provide financial assistance for medical expenses due to COVID-19
  • Assist employees with maintaining unemployment insurance 

Add Social Justice, Virtual Organizing, and Skepticism

As unions leverage employee fears, they are experts at embracing every opportunity to grow their membership. Unions have found a rich opportunity due to pandemic related issues because employees are worried about their jobs, health, safety, and financial future. The economic experts frequently talk about a “new normal” development that includes more independent and/or remote workers. This adds to employee fears and anxiety.

The pandemic is not the only driver of employee dissatisfaction. Also in the mix is:

  • Employee unrest over social justice – UnionProof recently discussed the impact of employee protests and systemic inequality. Employees across the country have joined the protests for social justice, and millions have watched them on television or online. The protests are leading to changes in employer policies. Even if they drive more equity in talent decisions (i.e., “goal of 20% leaders who are people of color”), the changes also make employees anxious about the long-term impact on their jobs, promotions, training opportunities, and so on. It is the uncertainty that creates fear.

The social justice protests also have another impact. They prove that a group of persistent people can bring change through protesting, which plays right into the hands of unions.

  • Employees are finding new ways to protest – There are many groups of workers forming worker coalitions on the fringes of formal unionizing. Though they aren’t unions, these employees organize, protest, and make their employers’ demands just like union members do. In fact, unions support many of these worker coalitions (non-union unions) as a strategy for eventually getting new laws that make more types of employees eligible for unionizing. 

The Independent Drivers Guild (gig workers from Uber and Lyft), the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are just a few of these coalitions. Though some people will claim labor unions will never be the same again, the reality is they are rising like the phoenix from the ashes – sometimes in the same form but often in new forms that are just as disruptive to businesses. 

  • Virtual organizing is increasing – One of the trends occurring is online video conferencing, like Zoom. The union representatives are using programs like Zoom and GoToMeeting to connect with employees who want to know more about unionizing or hold remote group meetings. Union organizing virtually is showing success. 

In the Washington Post article, “The latest frontier in worker activism: Zoom union campaigns” (9/11/20), you can get a glimpse into the thought processes of employees impacted by the pandemic who then turn to video chat to connect with unions. Some of the successes include the California Teachers Association, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (unionized medical workers!). Videoconferencing is used to hold union rallies, chat with union members, conduct contract negotiations, and do polling of employees before union campaign certification. 

Another important point to keep in mind is that employees can now hold crowdsourced public campaigns to push for workplace changes. The platform Coworker.org, a nonprofit organization, deploys digital tools that enable employees to share information and collectively advocate for change. 

Some of the campaigns run on this site target direct interference in employer operations. For example, one current project is “Partnering with media organizations to gather information from workers at companies like Starbucks, Apple, and American Airlines about third-party benefits administrators and their impact on workers forced to interface with them to access benefits like workers’ comp.”

  • Employee skepticism – This is added as a factor driving interest in unions because the unions are encouraging employees to believe their health and safety is at risk, even if you do everything in your power to reopen and operate by following all the government regulations and guidance. It’s just more proof that unions thrive on discord.
  • Inconsistent policies – The pandemic has led some employers to offer hazard pay and other financial benefits, and then end them when no longer considered necessary. The FLSA doesn’t require hazard pay, per the Department of Labor, which also says, “Issues such as hazard pay are usually determined privately between employers and employees or their authorized representatives.” The issues are, 1) employees and employers don’t always agree on what is considered “safe,” 2) unions are vigorously negotiating for hazard pay to remain in place until the pandemic is considered ended, and 3) it’s very difficult to give people additional compensation and then take it away.

Employer Reactions and Actions

If giving employees a voice before the pandemic was important, it’s even more important now. Employees turn to unions because they want to be heard and understood. In an SHRM article, Mark Kisicki, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins, noted, “If employees feel that there is no one at the company who will listen to and try to help them, they will turn to someone outside the company who will. Often, that someone is a union organizer.”

Employers must recognize the fear and anxiety employees are experiencing and do what they can to ease them. The following are some suggestions for reacting and acting to employee angst and increasing union activity.

  • Proactively and regularly demonstrate and communicate the ways your company has put the health, safety, and welfare of employees first. Utilize various resources that include employee training on safety measures, statements on the company website, emails, social media posts, policy statements, and procedures sent as mailouts to employee homes, posters hung throughout the workplace, and management video statements reinforcing employee safety measures. 
  • Clearly explain temporary changes to policies concerning benefits. As an employer, you want employees to recognize they come first. Each company decides about changes to sick leave and other time off policies, hazard pay, insurance coverage, financial assistance with medical expenses, etc. There should be no confusion in employees’ minds as to the policy changes because confusion breeds anxiety. Promote the company’s efforts to provide monetary and/or non-monetary benefits, like adjusted work schedules and remote work opportunities, to demonstrate leadership’s desire to help employees as much as possible.
  • Keep employee engagement high by maintaining a direct connection with employees. This can be accomplished in various ways – providing regular feedback, developing a FAQ webpage for employees, holding meetings in-person or via videoconferencing, engagement surveys, responding legally but rapidly to employee complaints and formal grievances, and utilizing internal communication systems.
  • Protect employee rights under the law. Employees have the right to “engage in concerted activities for mutual aid and benefit” per the NLRA. Businesses are under tremendous financial stress, so it’s particularly difficult to watch employees walk off the job to demand better safety protections, hazard pay, or enhanced benefits. However, it’s their right to do so for themselves and support employees in other organizations. 
  • Maintain the union-free website as a key tool for counteracting union claims that your company doesn’t care about employee welfare or the welfare of employees’ families. A common union mantra is that employers are careless about CVID-19 safety measures and are willing to risk spreading the disease. These kinds of claims should be addressed.

Union avoidance is a process and not an event. This means that you should be training leaders now in the strategies and behaviors designed to keep an organization union-free. Waiting until a union organizing campaign starts forces the employer to condense training into a short period, creating a situation much more prone to experience unfair labor practices. It’s not too late to engage employees to stay union-free, but there is no denying it’s much more difficult, especially during the emotional pandemic times.

Seek Expert Assistance

The previous discussion covers a lot of ground, reflecting the complexity of what is happening today. Don’t let a lack of knowledge harm your employee relations. UnionProof keeps its finger on the pulse of union activity, strategies, behaviors, and themes. As 2020 races to completion, expect a continued uptick in union activity, more employee protests, and greater workforce anxiety. The experts at UnionProof and A Better Leader, under the auspice of Projections, Inc., can deliver the tools and information you need to avoid unionization during a pandemic and beyond.

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.