How Your Leaders Can Answer The Question, “Should I Join A Union?”

Managers and supervisors often avoid talking about labor unions. Then one day, one or more employees whether directly, or indirectly, ask the question, "Should I join a union?" They may ask directly out of curiosity about how the leader will respond, and they may ask out of frustration with the organization's management. In this latter case, the question is really, "Should I join a union to get some answers from management?" Either way, employees asking this question may find the leader struggles to say anything. This indicates a lack of leadership training on staying union-free and knowing what can and cannot be said.

The bottom line is, your managers and supervisors must always stay prepared to speak to employees about unions, and answer all employee questions that come up. If you're a CHRO who needs to ensure your leadership development programs are filling the knowledge gaps among managers/supervisors, or you realize that your leadership teams aren't up-to-speed in the realm of labor relations, you can't downplay the importance of developing your leaders to be able to handle these sorts of questions.

Skilled Leaders Speak to Employees About Unions 

As unions become more active and successful in recruiting employees in the pro-union environment that exists today, your leaders are more likely to encounter the question, "Should I join a union?" Over the last couple of decades, union membership has declined, so employees were not frequently asking that question. The result is that leadership training on labor unions, and labor law was neglected. Creating a group of managers and supervisors who don't understand a union can significantly impact a business, including their jobs. For starters, managing in a union environment requires a higher level of knowledge about things like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and employer and employee rights.  

Yes, a union entering a company is a major event, so the question "Should I join a union?" needs a careful answer that encourages employees to stay union-free while not violating the right of employees to participate in protected concerted activities. The fact that unions like to ignore is that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act guarantees employees the right to self-organize and join a union, as well as the right "to refrain from any or all such activities." Your leaders should always speak to their employees with the perspective they are helping them understand that employees can refuse to join a union, keeping the organization union-free. 

Understanding the Reasons an Employee Asks, "Should I join a union?" 

There are common reasons employees begin thinking about unions. Your leaders should know how to respond to each one. For example, unions promise better pay or benefits, but the contract negotiation process may not net them either one. Unions promise job security, but some employees don't understand the employer can still reduce working hours, close plants, and eliminate jobs when business circumstances justify it. Another common reason employees say they join a union is to improve workplace conditions, but management can do that without a union collecting dues out of employee earnings. Union promises flow in a steady stream when trying to convince employees to join a union.  

However, employees are driven to unions for more esoteric reasons than money and benefits. Employees want dignity, respect, fairness, and justice in the workplace. You may pay the highest wages in the area, but employees who feel they are taken for granted, not respected, or treated fairly will consider joining a union. This is difficult for some employers to accept – that union membership is not just about money.   

The question, "Should I join a union?" could be framed as "Should I join a union to get the respect I deserve?" in some cases. From the employee's perspective, joining a union might be a way to improve work quality, get recognition and gain empowerment. Telling someone who is treated as dispensable because of their position level that they earn fair pay isn't a good response. 

answering employee questions

Focus on the Positive Employee Relationship First  

When approached with the question, "Should I join a union?" your manager or supervisor should have a quick response that goes right to the relationship of the employee and leader. Unions work on emotions, and relationships are based on emotions.   

The quick leader response is, "I prefer to deal directly with you, listening and getting feedback about your concerns. Once a union is involved, employee problem resolution must be negotiated, either with the union representative or the National Labor Relations Board, should it reach that level. It becomes a three-way relationship with the union in the middle, reducing our ability to work together to find solutions. By staying union-free, I am also able to reward your performance, maintain scheduling flexibility and work with you to ensure your personal and work goals are met." 

Notice the response begins and ends on the positive aspects of staying union-free, as opposed to a manager saying something like, "If you bring in a union, the union won't let me promote you in the future because you don't have seniority," or "Should you join a union, you may end up without pay for a while should the union tell you to strike." These may be true statements but are meant to scare the employee.  

Scaring your employees upfront is an ineffective approach and quickly makes management look desperate, giving employees indirect encouragement to further pursue the idea of joining a union. Answering an employee's question with hostility will inevitably harm the employer-employee relationship.   

Always Prepared to Respond to Employees about Unions 

Beyond the leader's positive "elevator pitch" for staying union-free, your manager or supervisor can speak to employees showing interest in unions by sharing factual information and can also learn a lot by listening to the employee at the same time.  

  • Point to the fact that employees will have to pay union dues and initiation fees for union representation when they can talk directly to the manager or supervisor without paying anything 
  • Let the employee know that management respects employees because the employees are the people who make the company successful and encourage one-on-one conversations about employee concerns. 
  • Correct any misstatements the employee makes about the company or management and point out the things employees already have 
  • Let the employee know there are no guarantees that a union's promises will be implemented because a union bargaining agreement would need to be negotiated. 
  • Ask the employee's point of view about the company and listen closely because you will get clues as to the issues prompting the question, "Should I join a union?" 
  • Highlight the positive aspects of working for the business, which should include the open-door policies, leveraging the fact the employee was comfortable even asking the question (a good sign), "Should I join a union?" 
  • Share a personal experience with unions, so the employee gets a realistic view of how unions really impact people and is persuaded not to join a union. 
  • Express a hope the employee won't get involved with unions 

Managers and supervisors must understand that language matters to stay union-free and meet legal requirements. Even if the employee initiates the conversation about unions, your leaders must use appropriate language at all times when speaking to employees. UnionProof calls these "wise words."  

In 2015, a Federal Court of Appeals addressed management comments made to employees during the beginning stages of a union organizing campaign. The judge stated, "…the underlying message…is that an employer…needs to take care in the rhetoric it uses when discussing union issues with its workers." It points to the critical importance of leadership training on using wise words that reflect a labor-wise manager or supervisor.  

After the Employee Asks About Unions 

After an employee asks, "Should I join a union?" the work to stay union-free is just beginning. The question should drive management actions that ensure everything is being done to stay union-free. Following are some suggestions for post-question actions.  

  • Let Human Resources know the employee asked, "Should I join a union?" 
  • Dig deep to find out why any employee is asking the question. It may be because unions are in the news now on a regular basis. They may ask out of curiosity as to how you'll answer. The number of strikes is growing again, and strikers are regularly seen in picket lines on the internet or TV. You can use that to your advantage by reminding your employees the strikers are not getting paid except for a small amount out of a union strike fund.  

If the employee is not asking out of curiosity and is seriously thinking about unionizing, then you will have to try to identify the specific reasons and respond accordingly. Remember, the employee is probably not the only one thinking about unions.  

  • Identify gaps in leadership knowledge of labor law and labor unions and develop the appropriate training. Training should update leader knowledge about the focus of unions and current tactics. Many times companies train their leaders once but don't keep them consistently trained and updated over time. Labor laws and NLRB decisions are always changing the playbook on staying union-free. 
  • Identify gaps in leadership training on employee engagement and developing positive employee relations. Your leaders should be promoting the advantages of working for the company on a regular basis and not just in response to a question about unions. Your leaders should also learn how unions approach employees, and the benefits and protections unions say they bring in order to develop responses in advance to employee questions about unions.   

If there is a specific union the employee mentions, we provide resources addressing union organizing by specific unions like the CWA, IBEW, and IBT, along with training on topics like modern union organizing and how employees can push back on unions. UnionProof can also develop custom eLearning resources focused on any union, including local ones.  

  • If revealed, strategize to address why the employee is asking, "Should I join a union?" It may be the employee is only asking because a friend joined a union, or he/she saw a news report in which the pro-union government speaks about the reasons they want more employees to become union members. Whatever the reasons are for the question, develop a strategy to address each one as an organization. 
  • Identify ways the company can improve employee relations to convince employees they don't need a union. Developing positive employee relations requires a willingness of your leaders to develop emotional intelligence. This isn't a "touchy-feely" skill that some managers schooled in traditional management styles consider it to be. 
answer employee questions to stay union-free

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence when Answering Employee Questions

Lauren Landry at the Harvard Business School Online named four components of emotional intelligence:  

  • Self-awareness 
  • Self-management 
  • Social awareness 
  • Relationship management 

Emotional intelligence is needed to address the question, "Should I join a union?" Why? Because the leader must be aware of their perspective on unions, manage the response in a way that doesn't add to the stress of the moment, and recognize the employee's emotions and potential dynamics in the organization to respond with empathy and influence the employee without violating the NLRA restrictions placed on employers. You want to use the opportunity to answer the question without harming employee relations or giving the employee any reason to contact a union initially or again. 

A caveat to emotional intelligence is this: Use emotional intelligence to better understand the employee's perspective, but don't respond to the question with emotions. Your managers and supervisors should not express a feeling of hurt or betrayal to an employee asking about unions.  

  • If you don't have one available yet, set up a preventive union organizing website explaining the company's views on unions, and include a FAQ page where employees can ask questions about unions. This is an excellent way to encourage employees to share their thoughts on unions. 

Answer Employee Questions and Don't Shy Away From Speaking About Unions

At Projections, we are happy to be able to offer a variety of resources for leadership skills development. Our training specializes in unions, employee communication, leaders as coaches, organizational development, and a host of other topics. We also offer management consulting services to organizations needing assistance developing a leadership training program and strategy to stay union-free.  

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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