The Connection Between Change Management and Labor Unions

What is the connection between change management & labor unions? First, let's say that change has changed. The goal of change management is no longer managing a single event with a beginning and end. Change is ongoing in today's dynamic environment when there may be sudden supply chain shortages, an increase in turnover as employees keep the Great Resignation alive and well, planned mergers and acquisitions as companies adapt to the post-pandemic business environment, new technologies changing competitive status, a change in executive leadership, a need for a business transformation or reorganization, a desire to change the organizational culture, and unexpected union organizing.  

Gartner research found that a typical organization has conducted five organizational-wide changes in the last three years; 75 percent expect to increase the number of major change initiatives in the next three years; half of the initiatives fail. Some change is adaptive, and some change is transformational, but all change impacts employees, which is the connection between change management and labor unions. 

Opening the Change Door to Unions 

Change management is more complicated today than ever because employees are activists and rigorously question management decisions. People naturally get upset when there is a need to terminate employees or change employee benefits and work schedules. For example, some employees are terminated when a company builds a new manufacturing facility with state-of-the-art technologies to replace the need for workers or closes an existing one. A change in patient loads in a healthcare facility and a labor shortage pressure employees to work longer hours, requiring significant schedule changes. New technology implementation may include automation of current workloads and a need for skills upgrading or reskilling.  

They now target both union and non-union companies to force desired changes. Chances are that your organizational leaders manage multiple change processes simultaneously, making it easy to forget the full impact on employees. This is precisely what gives labor unions an "in" into your workforce. It also provides labor unions opportunities to express a public voice to push their agenda and talking points to the media.   

All leaders in your organization are responsible for change management. As our team at IRI Consultants frequently discusses, making change a part of a positive organizational culture and not a labor union attention-getter depends on your leaders always being labor-wise leaders and demonstrating role model behaviors for ensuring change is harnessed for success. Change management is impacted by many internal and external pressures, including regularly changing customer demands, government regulations and employment laws, technologies, customer and employee demographics, millennials moving into leadership positions, and social and cultural expectations. Remaining competitive and keeping labor unions away while addressing so many changes at once is a balancing act. One misstep and one of three things will happen.  

  • One or more employees file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) with the National Labor Relations Board or a grievance with the Department of Labor, either of which will get the attention of a labor union.  
  • The labor union discovers your business is planning a layoff, merger, revised work schedules, delayed wage increase, reorganization, a new operation in a foreign country, offshoring some functions like customer services, hiring more contracted labor and gig workers, opening a new worksite that doesn't meet social equality concerns or could impact the environment, etc. Inevitably, the labor union goes public with a finger-pointing grievance against your business. The purpose is to convince employees that they are being treated unfairly and to demonstrate that the labor union can help them.  
  • Employees contact a labor union representative or form an independent union, like the workers at Amazon and Starbucks.  

Giving Employees a Voice of Change 

Traditional change management practices aren't effective in the age of employee pro-union National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) activism. Top-down directed change management best practices don't work in a workplace where employees want a voice in decision-making, transparency about organizational strategies and goals, and their needs met. Those needs are varied today and include more employee voice in business operations, management decision-making, contracts, compensation and benefits, work schedules, and expression of corporate social responsibility.  

Some of the traditional change management practices that are not a good fit today include: 

  • Issuing dictates from the C-suite down the leadership levels with little explanation given to employees as to the reasons for the change 
  • Reliance on hard skills like planning, directing, and controlling and failure to apply soft skills like empathy 
  • The assumption that the workforce can be led as a uniform group  
  • Change teams that only include executives and managers and not supervisors and employees 
  • Managing change as an event or initiative rather than an ongoing organizational journey impacting the employee experience 
  • Implementing changes without explaining to employees the purpose of the changes or getting feedback from employees before changes are made 

It's breathtaking what your leadership is expected to balance today in an environment where labor unions always look for a way to connect with disgruntled and actively disengaged employees. It's the foundation of the connection between change management and labor unions. The pandemic led to profound changes in employee attitudes and expectations about work and work norms, workforce structure, adoption of new collaboration and work tools to accommodate a hybrid workforce, and internal communication processes.  

The changes kept on coming after the pandemic too. For example, employers faced intense resistance to forcing employees to return to work onsite full-time and had to revisit their policies and allow flexible schedules. It's a change process still in progress.  

change management and labor unions

Change Management in the Small and Large Business 

As CNN and many other news media reported, a Chick-fil-A restaurant owner in Miami decided to give employees the option of working 12-14 hour shifts, meaning they could get their full-time hours within three days. The employer and employees benefitted.  

  • The change led to the store getting 429 applications in one week when the job was posted 
  • Employees are a more cohesive group because they work together for longer hours 
  • Employees opting for the 3-day schedule were able to plan their personal lives better 
  • The set schedule enabled better work-life balance 
  • Management retention improved to 100 percent 
  • Employees are happier 
  • Productivity increased 

Owner/Operator Justin Lindsey said, "I think people want to work in this industry, but they want some things to change, and I think that's what this has shown — is that there are things that if we change it for the better, we're going to make a lasting impact." The staff consisted of 18 store leaders and 20 frontline workers, a bigger staff than many of the Starbucks stores that are unionizing.  

Chick-fil-a employees are not talking about labor unions. The author of the CNN article writes, "The restaurant is just another example of businesses experimenting with non-traditional shifts ever since the pandemic upended the 40-hour workweek. Although the majority of companies have been reluctant to change, some firms, and even some bosses, have urged flexibility as a way to entice and retain workers by offering them a better work-life balance."  

Change management doesn't necessarily involve a major upheaval like a merger or acquisition. It includes your leaders recognizing opportunities for smaller innovative operational and Human Resources changes that meet employee needs. The Chick-fil-a example made managers and frontline staff happy. Still, it did require the owner Lindsey to determine how he could change the schedule to please employees without causing operations and customer services to suffer.   

It's generally accepted that Chick-fil-a is not a focus of labor unions, despite the union organizing trend in the restaurant industry inspired by Starbucks, because of careful hiring and management's sincere efforts to accommodate employee needs like time off, good pay, steady schedules, raises based on performance, and opportunities to advance.  

Twitter, a large global company, was bought by Elon Musk, bringing intense labor union attention placed on the company. Musk announced changes right after the buyout deal closed, and one is a massive layoff as he tries to improve the bottom line. This is an ideal example of the relationship between change management and labor unions. Mashable published an article titled The time is right for Twitter employees to unionize in the topic category "social good." It addresses worker concerns about the platform, employee voice, and the terminations and their impact on those who remain employed. There is a lot to unpack about the situation.  

  • Twitter employees believe they have successfully decreased hate speech, bullying, etc., so they have made the real world a less toxic place. 
  • Sara Nelson, a union organizer for the Association of Flight Attendants, tweeted, "Twitter workers: Now is the time to organize a union, so you have a seat at the table. Starbucks workers are doing it. Amazon workers are doing it, too. You're up!" 
  • Clarissa Redwine, a former Kickstarter employee who led the union drive, said, "We know for many, many union drives, workers feeling like their work and their labor is being disrespected or gone to waste is a hugely motivating factor in organizing campaigns." 

Some critical points are made. Tech worker activism was inspired by employees who want a voice in the formation of company policies. The union organizers are using phrases like "Musk is bulldozing over employees," "worker power," and "strength in numbers" Musk has made his dislike of unions known in the past. Still, the current union organizers believe the NLRB will hold him accountable for opposing union organizing.  

An important point to note is that the Twitter buyout is driving employee activism and civil rights groups to take action. The coalition #StopToxicTwitter has more than 60 civil rights groups as members and is escalating calls to Twitter advertisers to suspend their ad campaigns on the Twitter platform. Said Jessica J. González, co-CEO of Free Press, one of the advocacy groups in the coalition, "We are witnessing the real-time destruction of one of the world's most powerful communication systems." The issues go far beyond terminations for this particular change management process.  

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Resisting Change Begins with Employee Attitude 

Rapid change usually makes people uncomfortable and even fearful. It's safe to say that change always leads to some employees becoming unhappy and disengaged. A study of the psychology of resistance to change addressed the fact that one of the biggest problems any organization faces is employee resistance to change which begins with attitude. The researchers examined the role of: 

  • Organizational justice dimensions – include whether employees believe management is honest and just in giving awards, fair in the communication process about procedures, and supportive of employees; if so, employees are more likely to develop a positive attitude about organizational change. 
  • Leader-member exchange – if employees believe managers treat them well, they are more likely to be committed, well-motivated, and willing to accept the change (social exchange relationship) 
  • Readiness for change – employees don't like leaving their comfort zone and experience stress over the change, so they resist the change; if they believe they are supported well, they are more likely to accept new work roles and remain committed to achieving organizational goals out of a sense of responsibility and the importance of their effort 

One of the important points the researchers make is this: "Unaware of the potential benefits associated with the organizational change, employees often develop a sense of fear and perceive the introduction of change as an unfair act. Therefore, they develop negative attitudes and exhibit adverse reactions toward change – a phenomenon is known as resistance to change." Employees who develop resistance to change are more likely to unionize. Your change managers must influence employee attitudes.  

Change Management and Labor Unions Don't Have to be Partners 

Employee and team issues can escalate and spread when negativity takes hold. Today, it's easy for employees and union organizers to use social media to connect with each other. What elements should be included in your change management strategy? 

  1. Maintaining strong positive employee relations and employee engagement is a significant determinant of how well employees accept change and decide a union is unnecessary. Develop leaders who proactively reach out to employees to request ideas and feedback. 
  2. Create an organizational culture of respect, values, trust, management support, and transparency to create an environment where unions simply aren't needed. 
  3. Communicate the business purpose of the change. Communication breakdowns and gaps are major sources of employee and management conflict. There can't be a shared purpose without effective leadership communication. Honest and transparent communication is key to successful change management and avoiding unionization. (Agree or disagree with Elon Musk's approach, it can be said he was pretty clear about the reasons for implementing changes.) Do your employees understand the need for change? 
  4. Utilize multiple communication channels to ensure all employees can access information about the change.
  5. Develop change teams that include the appropriate employee representatives, and don't let rumors and speculation drive the change narrative. Supporting employee voice through teams, meetings, and feedback communication systems is important to successful change management and preventing union organizing. A union member said, "even if it's not implemented my way, if at least you considered our opinion, then I can still accept it." Employees want input into change and don't want change happening to them. They want it by them. 
  6. Shaping employee attitudes towards change to reduce fear and anxiety is vital for successful change management. Conduct change management pulse surveys to gather feedback to focus on real employee needs and concerns. 
  7. Train your leaders throughout the organization at all levels on recognizing and managing employee resistance to change. Leadership should learn to recognize and address the root causes of resistance and address issues right away when they appear, so they don't linger. 
  8. Encourage your leaders to assess their personal commitment to being role models for change. There are leadership behaviors that could demonstrate that commitment, like providing employee training and updating technologies and work procedures to make the organizational transformation smoother and easier. 
  9. Conduct leadership labor relations training and what it means to be a change manager to avoid becoming a target for labor unions. Union avoidance is possible when your employees are kept informed and made essential partners in imminent change, but how leaders lead matters. Leaders should become champions of employee success and not a source of Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges.  
  10. Include the identification of potential employee resistance in the change management plan; the individuals or employee groups identified are the employees most likely to contact a labor union. 
  11. Identify the labor unions most likely to take an interest in your change process, anticipating their objections and addressing issues upfront during change management. Researching unions gives you a good idea of their typical platform of grievances.  
  12. Include a union response plan as part of the change management process should labor unions begin publicly criticizing your company or you discover signs of union organizing.  
  13. Be prepared for union organizers to embrace social responsibility as an organizing clarion call, in addition to traditional issues like terminations, compensation, and benefits changes. 
change management

Weakening the Link Between Change Management & Labor Unions  

Change happens on a small and large scale and can either get the attention of labor unions or lead to employees contacting union representatives. Labor unions can also alter change plans, even if your company is not unionized, by holding protests or publicly attacking a project they don't like because they fear it will negatively impact the employment of union workers. For example, a public battle was waged over the workforce in new electric vehicle battery plants. The auto manufacturers didn't want a union workforce in the EV plants, and most have now changed their stance. The connection between change management and labor unions is strong whether or not your workforce is unionized. If already unionized, the labor union has a lot of say in how the change will be handled.   

IRI Consultants is always ready to assist your leaders in leadership training and development, labor relations readiness, organizational development, and strengthening positive employee relations and employee engagement so that change management doesn't become a labor union opportunity for organizing. Contact us today

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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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