“That’s ridiculous!” says your CEO upon hearing a union is trying to organize employees, “I’ll talk to the employees myself and tell them they can’t do this.” While understandable, this is not a productive response – you and your CEO need a union organizing response plan.
In fact, this kind of response is very likely to lead to grievances that claim violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the law that protects employee rights. The NLRA gives them the right to discuss workplace conditions, compensation and ultimately the possibility of unionizing.
If that’s the wrong CEO response, what is the correct one? The correct response is a measured one that protects employee rights while exercising employer rights. You do have rights, but those rights require a careful response that is based on knowledge of the law and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions.
One of the critical roles of labor consultants or labor attorneys is helping employers develop a legal, carefully thought out and appropriate response to union organizing efforts that doesn’t give unions or union supporters anything they can use to advance their cause.
DEVELOP A CLEAR COMMUNICATION STRATEGY
Savvy companies have been communicating the company’s perspective on unions all along, but now is the time to develop a clear communication strategy. The CEO should not suddenly call the employees together to give a speech on how unionization will lead to layoffs and terminations or how the business will have to close a plant because of increases in payroll costs.
Ideally, the company has a dedicated web page that presents the company’s viewpoint on unions and reinforces that viewpoint during the new-hire onboarding process and in employee training resources. The webpage is always up and accessible.
A good idea is to have a dark website that can be rapidly amended to address the specific circumstances of the union organizing effort and quickly made accessible. The dark website addresses the reasons the company opposes unions and reinforces the advantages of working for your company. Your union organizing response is based on facts and not exaggerations or fear mongering.
A critical step in developing a clear communication strategy is identifying the persons responsible for ensuring the communication materials are managed, regularly updated and released as necessary, ensuring all employees have access to the information in some form. They include videos, corporate webpages, dark websites, posters, newsletters and management communication systems.
DEFINE THE EMPLOYEES WHO ARE SUPERVISORS AND MEET WITH THEM
In any union organizing response, it’s important to first identify the people who meet the legal and NLRB definition of a supervisor. These are the people who can hire and fire employees and have been given the right to speak for the company. Once people who are legally supervisors are identified, the next step is to meet with them to reinforce the company’s position on unions and the importance of following the law.
Your supervisors can help the situation from getting worse by presenting the facts, knowing how to respond to employee questions and promoting the company’s benefits. As part of the union organizing response your CEO should meet with your front-line leaders to provide the facts and the truth without filtering.
ASSIGN RESPONSIBILITIES TO SPECIFIC PEOPLE
When union organizing becomes a reality, it’s important that people in the organization know their specific responsibilities related to union organizing activity. It’s not unusual for organizations to find they haven’t done a good job of keeping people informed as to what they are allowed to do and not do.
For example, there have been numerous NLRB decisions concerning the material that can be posted on a bulletin board. One supervisor walking by a bulletin and ripping off a notice about a union organizing meeting can lead to a grievance, additional legal expenses, supervisor training and management time spent trying to re-engage employees.
CEO AND SENIOR LEADERSHIP RESPONSIBILITIES
As part of your union organizing response, your CEO and senior leadership team need to assign specific responsibilities for directly communicating with employees. This includes updating existing union-related materials, and refreshing and delivering manager and supervisor training on their rights per labor law (think TIPS and FOE rules). You’ll also want to prepare communication and education materials, create a plan for responding to grievances, securing the facility and communicating with union representatives.
One of the most important responsibilities is identifying the specific reason employees are considering unionizing, and addressing those concerns. As part of your union organizing response, consult with a labor attorney or labor consultant to assist with an analysis of the issues and appropriate responses within context of labor law. Keep in mind the union will not invest resources in union organizing unless it believes it has a good chance of succeeding and has already gained the support of some of your employees.
Think of CEO union organizing responses that go like this, “Let’s poll employees as to whether they are each for or against unionizing,” or “They don’t like working the third shift? Fine. I was going to eliminate those jobs anyway and run the plant with day and swing shifts.” Oops…both plans violate labor law.
On the flip side, NOT communicating with employees, out of fear of saying the wrong thing, is a major mistake. It gives the appearance you don’t care about your employees or whether they organize. You also give free rein to union organizers to say whatever they want about the workplace and employer policies.
PREPARE A CONTINGENCY PLAN FOR A WORK STOPPAGE
A work stoppage contingency plan is a work continuity plan in the event operations are interrupted due to a labor dispute. The plan considers many aspects of a strike or work slowdown.
Your union organizing response should include planning for the level of production that will be maintained, facility access control, responses to criminal complaints should police get involved, size of the workforce to maintain, the chain of command during strike operations and procedures for getting shipments in and out of the facility.
Securing the facility and deciding who will deal with unlawful picketers or strikers is critical. It’s probable that some of the normal workplace rules will be suspended and new ones temporarily put into place, and they must be communicated to the appropriate people. If you followed step three, there are people assigned to implement and manage the revised procedures. Also crucial is workforce planning in terms of the size of the workforce, who will assume temporary additional duties to keep operations going, who will continue communicating with customers and other external stakeholders, scheduling and other Human Resources related activities.
There are companies offering expertise in work stoppage operational and security contingency planning. Two of the largest companies are AFIMAC and MADI. They can assist with developing work stoppage plans and providing contingent staffing as part of your union organizing response.
BE READY WITH A VISION FOR AFTER THE CAMPAIGN IS OVER
After the union campaign is over, management should have a plan in place for reviewing the event. No matter the outcome of the union organizing attempt, the union campaign effort is a learning opportunity. Prepare to publicly reaffirm your organization’s vision and its commitment to an engaged workforce.
Anytime employees consider unionizing, it means there are personnel issues to address; policies and procedures that may need changing; and current processes or systems that need updating.
For example, plan to do a thorough review and updating of your onboarding process. It’s important to communicate the employer’s perspective on unionization at the earliest stage of employment. The management-employee communication processes need review and updating too. If you didn’t previously have a dedicated webpage explaining the company’s position on unions and the many benefits you offer that make unions unnecessary, it’s time to add one.
The communication process should be reviewed for its ability to reach all employees, positive messaging (strengthen its positivity) and effectiveness at enabling two-way feedback between employees and management. Do all employees have a voice? Do managers listen and respond to employees? Pulse engagement surveys can be instituted as a measurement tool.
HIRE A LABOR PROFESSIONAL
It’s wise to hire a labor consultant or labor attorney to review current Human Resources policies and procedures to determine if any violate labor law or need clarification. You need a legally sound system for unbiased hiring, promotions, compensation, performance reviews and termination. Since there has been a planned or actual attempt to start a union campaign, you need to union proof your talent management system so there are no future attempts.
The grievance procedure needs review also. Perhaps it’s time to adopt Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for resolving conflicts and work place issues. ADR is a procedure in which a neutral party helps employees and their employer come to agreement and avoid litigation.
Above all, immediately improve leadership training. Many NLRB cases and successful union organizing attempts result from the actions of the middle managers and frontline supervisors. Unfortunately, some organizations offer training only to the higher levels of management, but it’s the frontline supervisors who create some of the highest risks for unionization because they interact with staff members on a routine basis. The employee problems end up routed to middle managers where a poor decision violating labor law can blow up into a union campaign. Leadership during union organizing takes on a whole new meaning and importance.
Developing a union organizing response plan for – and with – your CEO is an important step in staying union-free. Clearly, keeping unions out of the workplace requires diligence and expertise, and good communication skills. The ultimate goal of having a response plan in place is to not make a bad situation even worse through bad senior leader decisions.