“I’ll wait to see who wins the 2020 Presidential election before I start worrying about unions again. I don’t want to spend the money on a labor consultant or attorney unless I have to. Besides, unions are on their way out,” said the employer.
The employer’s attitude seems reasonable. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record low union membership rate of 10.5 percent for 2018. Union membership has trended downward since 1983, when it was approximately 20.1 percent of the workforce. In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of non-union employees in Janus v. AFCME and overturned 40 years of precedent that forced public employees to pay agency fees, which were really union dues by any other name.
The National Labor Relationships Board (NLRB) has even turned more pro-business under the Republican administration of Donald Trump compared to the pro-union NLRB of President’s Obama administration. Also, there are now 27 right-to-work states that give employees the right to decide if they want to join a union, even in a unionized workplace.
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CANDIDATES MAY SUPPORT UNIONS
It’s easy for business owners to get complacent when the economy is booming. People are able to find good paying jobs and sentiment is more with businesses than unions. If you’re feeling a bit complacent about unions at this point, it’s understandable.
The issue is that complacency leads to inaction. It’s important to realize there are changes blowing in the wind concerning unionization. First, a Gallup poll in August 2018 found that 62-percent of Americans approved of labor unions. Also, many millennials are turning to unions to help them improve their financial situation and confront employers they believe treat employees poorly. There are many more who belong to alt-labor groups, the non-union organizations that encourage people to act like union members.
Now the campaigning for the 2020 Presidential election has started, and Democratic candidates are cultivating union support. Joe Biden has already garnered the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) for his candidacy. Biden has always been a union supporter, so this is not surprising. However, Joe Biden is not alone is touting unionization. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobucher are expressing their support for unions and trying to get union endorsements for their campaigns. Also publicly supporting unions are Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
UNIONS SEE THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AS AN OPPORTUNITY
This is a cautionary tale for employers. Complacency now can lead to unionization later. Unions see the next presidential election as an opportunity to rebuild membership. However, the days of strikes and picket lines are not a thing of the past. They are taking place right now.
STRIKES AND PICKET LINES
The Stop and Shop employees went on strike April 11, 2019 to protest proposed changes to health care and other benefits, along with take-home pay changes. They formed a picket line outside the stores. More than 30,000 workers in three states struck, impacting more than 240 Stop & Shops in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
The union said the parent company Ahold Delhaize had reported more than $2 billion in profits and was not treating workers fairly. The union and company had negotiated for three months and were unable to come to an agreement. Stop & Shop had proposed a contract that included, among other things, pay increases for all associates, an increase of $2-$4 on health insurance premiums, no changes to employee deductibles, and an increased contribution to the pension fund. The union argued that the proposed pay increase would not offset the additional health care costs. The company said that the union contract proposals would force it to raise prices.
On April 18, Joe Biden visited the Stop and Shop supermarket employees’ picket line, even before he declared his candidacy. He told the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union that they built America. He also said, “We’ve got to stand together, and we will take back our country.” Biden energized the crowd by telling them, “You are coming back.” These statements appeal to union members and are reminiscent of the union slogans used through the decades.
AFL-CIO spokesman, John Weber, had this to say, “We aren’t interested in anything short of a full-throated, unapologetic advocate for the labor movement.” He could have just said, “We will determine who runs as the Democratic candidate.” These are not the words of a group feeling a loss of power.
UNIONS ARE STILL A RISK REGARDLESS OF WHO WINS THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
On April 22, 2019, the strike ended after 10 days with the union claiming victory. On May 2, 2019, a new three-year contract was ratified by the union membership. The end result was that both sides did a give-and-take, which is what negotiations are all about.
During the strike, Stop & Shop stores suffered. Some stores had to close while employees were on strike. Others were virtually empty of customers during the strike. Some had to close key counters, like seafood, meat and deli. Corporate and temporary workers filled in at some places, meaning the stores were operating with a skeleton crew. Making the situation worse, 1,000 Teamsters union members refused to cross the picket line, so Stop & Shop had to hire temporary truck drivers.
Unions are like boxers who may be down but not out. They are determined to end the decline in membership rates, using a variety of strategies from appealing to millennials to using technology as a communication tool. Clearly, the strategy now is to leverage the political divide in the U.S. to their advantage.
It doesn’t matter which political party you support (if any). What should matter to you as an employer is the fact that your company is always at risk of unionizing, even when the winds seem to be blowing in favor of businesses. If you haven’t already, it’s time to get busy and UnionProof your business.
MAKE UNIONS UNNECESSARY
Complacency can lead to unionization. The 2020 presidential election is only a year-and-a-half away. This is 18 months during which democratic candidates will be promoting unions, and the unions will be flexing their political muscles. It’s also 18 months during which you can reinforce your company’s perspective on unions, strengthen a positive workplace culture, and make unions unnecessary.
Now, not later, is the time to act. You need to ensure your managers and supervisors understand how to communicate with their staff and know what they can say and not say about unions. Now is the time to strengthen employee engagement levels. It is the time to consult with a labor professional, like a labor consultant and/or a labor attorney, to get assistance with creating a UnionProof culture. Now is the time to realize that eighteen months is not a long time.