Union Promises: Talking The Talk… But Not Walking The Walk
When we say someone is “talking the talk, but not walking the walk,” we mean that his or her actions don’t back up what he or she says. This phrase can often be applied to union promises. Union organizers can be highly skilled at making the promises employees want to hear… but not so good at keeping them.
As an employer, it can be tough to demonstrate that to employees without seeming self-serving. Recognize that unions will often tell your employees things that may or may not be true. Your job is to keep that disinformation from influencing employee decisions.
Union promises often include higher pay, better benefits, a louder voice and managers who will treat employees with the utmost respect and fairness. Following are five typical promises that union representatives, and employees on the volunteer organizing committee, are likely to make to convince employees a union is a risk-free answer to all their concerns:
1. “Sign here, and I’ll get you some more information.”
Unions need a minimum of 30 percent of your employees to sign union authorization cards to initiate a petition with the NLRB requesting a union election. If just 50 percent +1 employee signs the cards, the union can demand recognition from you without an election.
Employees need to understand that union authorization cards are legal documents and not just a survey or meaningless piece of paper.
Union promises surrounding authorization cards are a strong reason to train your managers and supervisors. Make sure they know how to respond when employees bring them questions based on union promises that are half-true – or untrue.
2. “You need a contract, and you need it in writing.”
Unions like to make employees feel victimized by “evil” employers. It’s a strategy unions have used since 1881 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions was formed. Union representatives or employee sympathizers will tell employees that a contract is the only way to protect wages, benefits, safe working conditions, fair grievance procedures, promotion policies, and job security.
There are three possible outcomes from collective bargaining with a union. One, the contract maintains the status quo.
Two, the contract leads to things like increases in wages and benefits, but without regard for the financial impact on your company.
Three, the contract doesn’t benefit employees in various ways. At a Kimberly-Clark plant, some employees were unhappy with a ratified union contract for several reasons. The contract required the employer to request state aid to keep the plant open and penalized various employee groups with large pay cuts – 20 percent in some cases – and froze pay rates for three years and allowed outsourcing of warehousing staff.
Many employees didn’t believe the United Steelworkers represented employees equally. This is typical of many unions. They’re willing to negotiate unfair contracts if it’s necessary to protect their status.
Just a note: The Kimberly-Clark plant situation is an excellent example of the uncertainty and complexity that exists in today’s globalized business environment. The impact on unions is significant, and employees need to understand that unions are in a death spiral. They’ll make deals that aren’t necessarily good for employees to maintain their membership.
3. “It doesn’t cost anything to be a union member. Your higher pay will more than offset the dues.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that non-union workers earn approximately 80 percent of what union employees earn. It’s a big selling point unions try to use to convince employees to vote in a union. It’s essential to fully understand this fact, so you’re prepared to respond.
The reality of this statistic is that unions often target larger, successful companies that have communication difficulties or are suffering growing pains. These companies are often doing well financially, and are offering higher wages than their competitors to recruit the best talent. Organizers approach those employees and convince them they aren’t getting their fair share of the profits. So the fact that unions workers make 20% more than their non-union counterparts may have little to do with contract negotiations.
Your first response to this half-truth should include the reality of the numbers. Compulsory union dues are an expense to employees, often deducted from their paychecks like taxes. Union dues equate to pay for one to two hours per week. Another way to say the same thing is that your employees will contribute two hours of pay to the union every week. For example, the United Steel Workers total weekly dues for someone earning $12 per hour is $7.76, or 1.6 percent of earnings.
Then, explain that union promises fail to mention the cost to the employee of failed contract negotiations and strikes. Union dues support large organizations and their political causes. The union’s international budget may include exorbitant salaries to senior union leaders. The Center for Union Facts researched the salaries of union leaders and found that union leaders make an average of $60,000 more than a private-sector leader. The research also found some union leaders are making $700,000 per year, even as they criticize private-sector executives and senior managers for their high salaries.
A person making $12-$15 an hour is paying union dues to support an organization that often has its survival at the top of its agenda, rather than the well-being of its members.
4. “Give the union a chance. If it doesn’t work out, you can always vote the union out.”
This statement is meant to be reassuring, by letting employees know they can initiate a decertification process. Union promises of risk-free unionization omit the fact that the decertification process relies entirely on employee efforts, is very time-consuming and can negatively impact the workforce.
An Alabama autoworker and UAW member tried to decertify the union and had the backing of a majority of employees. There were five different decertification elections held. The employees won four of the elections, decertifying the union, but the NLRB threw out the results, again and again, saying the petitions weren’t legitimate. The union won one of the five elections, but that vote was thrown out when it was discovered that the union stuffed the ballot box to ensure themselves a win. In the meantime, the woman who initiated the decertification process was pressured by the UAW to give up, which she finally did.
Those five votes took place over two years. Unions will not leave paying members behind quietly.
5. “Your brothers and sisters stand with you at all times.”
A common concern of people being recruited by union members is the possibility of strikes. Union promises often include a community, a close-knit group of members that will stand by each other, through thick and thin. Union promises also make the point that unions have a strike fund for striking employees that will cover part of their lost wages during a strike.
Here’s the reality of that union promise: the UAW pays $200 per week or $40 per day Monday-Friday. Eligibility for strike pay begins on the 8th day and payments begin on the 15th day of a strike. Some UAW chapters pay less. There are additional payments like holiday bonus pay, should the strike continue long enough. The reality is that strike pay is not enough to feed and house a family.
Your employees should also know that those “brothers and sisters” expect them to take part in sympathy strikes, in which members strike to support someone else’s strike. Most of your employees aren’t likely to be interested in participating in sympathy strikes to satisfy the union’s desire to showcase its power over an employer.
A final point on the “community” a union provides is that their union dues are the source of strike funds. Even if your employees never strike, they’re still funding the strikes of members in other unions. Sympathy strikes are not as frequent as they once were, but they remain a union tactic. The California Nurses Association (CNA) has taken its union members out on sympathy strikes. Since 2010, the CNA has called 59 strikes, costing 384,000 lost days of pay which includes lost pay for sympathy strikers.
Respond to Union Promises with Insights and Facts
Your managers and supervisors should learn to recognize the catch phrases that can indicate an opening for a truthful discussion. It’s vital for leaders to be prepared in advance to respond to union promises. Leaders never know when they’ll be approached with a question like, “My neighbor works at the plant down the street, and he says the union got him $1 more an hour – do you think the union can do that for us, here?”
Other times, employees begin with, “My friend told me a union could give us a voice around here…” The friend may be on a volunteer organizing committee or an in-house organizer or a friend of a friend who is a union member. What your employees may not realize is that the friend repeating union promises also may not know the truth and is only parroting what the union told him or her to say. Make sure your leaders know how to respond.
The ability of leaders to respond with insights, using the right language, can make the difference between facing a union election process or staying union-free. It’s easy for unions to make promises. It’s much more difficult for them to keep them. Your employees need to know the truth.
Here is a suggestion: Develop a poster with these five common union promises and short, fact-based responses. There’s no time like the present to educate and engage employees.