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There are so many issues today – climate change, pay and gender equity, human rights, diversity and inclusion, racial injustice, pricing of critical goods like food and pharmaceuticals, worker health and safety, and so much more. Companies are facing an onslaught on all fronts of bad press, strikes and picketing, brand boycotts, and negative social media posts that are all intended to force change on issues. Following the adage of never letting a crisis go to waste, corporate campaigns by labor unions, groups associated with labor unions, and special interest groups are publicly calling out brands they believe are not socially responsible in some way. Add employees, stockholders, community members, and other stakeholders, plus a pro-union President and pro-union NLRB. This is the most supportive environment for labor activism seen in decades.
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) activism was once the purview of special interest groups and stockholders, but a stronger trend has risen out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Activists are employees, labor unions, and any group of people with a cause. They aren't hesitant to call out companies for "bad behavior" by picketing, calling for boycotts, exposing what they perceive as legal violations or systemic inequality, utilizing media as a tool for change, and taking other actions that are all directed at achieving a goal.
Though the environment and governance issues are considered separate, they are each related to social justice. For example, corporations said to be harming the environment are also said to be harming underserved communities, and corporate governance becomes an issue of management decision-making that negatively impacts employees and communities.
For this reason, the focus of this discussion is on corporate campaigns intended to bring social justice to corporations. Social activists are adept at utilizing various strategies that get public attention, from industry documentaries to labor union social justice campaigns to boycotting brands in the cancel culture. Your Chief Human Resources Officer and other senior managers are challenged with protecting their corporate reputation by ensuring the truth is communicated loud and clear to minimize the potential damage social activism can do to a company.
Labor unions have not had a supportive environment like this one for decades. Even when a labor union is not the organizing force, it usually offers support in some way. It could be advising a worker group or documentary produce or backing activism organizations. It could involve utilizing their websites and network of social media contacts to show support and encourage dissent, encourage union members to show solidarity with a group, and take other steps to influence companies' decisions.
The AFL-CIO created a document called Racial and Economic Justice, a toolkit developed by a labor commission of 17 international unions that focuses on initiating conversations about systemic racism and racial and economic justice. The conversations are about subjects like oppression, bias, how to be an ally, and supporting Black Lives Matter. One of the YouTube videos says this about being an ally, "It's not about your intent, it's about your impact." The point of activism is to have an impact which is why its expression is usually public because that gets more attention and more support.
The corporate campaign can take several forms. No longer is it a matter of traditional union members joining together to put pressure on their employers by striking. While plenty of strikes are going on now and even more predicted in 2022, other forms of protest include picketing and boycotts. Today's difference to traditional protesting is that non-union members and non-union organizations are acting like unions by organizing people to work against the company for a cause like social equity and justice. Corporate campaigns are not "events" with a beginning and end. Many are long-term efforts. Following are some of the ways companies are targeted.
Projections discussed the use of documentaries like Inhospitable that talks about the "broken healthcare system" and how a large nonprofit hospital fails the people it was meant to help and how it fails its employees. The documentary series Rotten about the food industry has a similar theme. Food companies are attacked, calling them corrupt and fraudulent. These types of documentaries are one-sided attacks on industries and corporations, forcing both to find ways to develop responses that fill in gaps and tell the whole story. It's challenging because people will watch documentaries, but how many then seek out the truth?
An interesting study published in the Journal of Business Ethics - led by David Gras, Assistant Profession of Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee - on the extent corporations are receptive to and need to meet social activist demands found there were two reasons companies become more attractive to social activists. They direct corporate social performance (CSP) towards employees and customers, or they direct CSP towards communities and government. After looking at eight years of data, the researchers found that companies directing more CSP towards employees and customers were more likely to become targets.
"When a company shows corporate social responsibility for primary groups, they get 'on the radar' of social activists who demand more, often costly, socially responsible activities from the company," according to Gras. Social activists who want a company to meet their demands will target what is central to a company's operations, like customers.
Once on the radar of social activists, a company's customers are targeted because that can quickly cause the greatest harm.
Digital activists use online media to ruin brands to get the attention for their causes. They create dedicated websites or pay people to make negative posts on social media, targeting those who "like" your brands. Crisp did a survey and found people do read the comments, and they affect brand perception.
Crisp also did a survey identifying the top 10 most mentioned topics involving brands. They are fakes/scams, accusations of inequality, accusations of discrimination, environmental concerns, partisan election/political involvement, unsafe employee working conditions, product/service performance issues, and celebrity or spokesperson misbehavior.
The creators of harmful content include bad actors with malicious intent toward a company, trolls who intentionally antagonize online community members, activists taking direct action again a brand, and others. Take note that one in five harmful content topics were in the comment sections of a social media ad a company is funding! Are you monitoring your social media and prepared to respond quickly?
Another tactic is damaging your reputation with complaints on issues like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I), social justice, worker safety & health. The complaints are made online and offline. Online is the use of social media and websites, as mentioned. There are numerous ways to attack an organization's reputation offline. Employees can file Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board and publicize their claims. They can also file complaints with the EEOC and OSHA and go public.
In 2018, one female engineer accused Uber of sexual harassment. That led to 56 additional claims of sexual harassment. When the sexual harassment claims investigation was conducted, other claims were made, like minority discrimination and a hostile workplace. Eventually, Uber spent $20 million defending the company and lost users to a competitor. The company's reputation remains damaged.
That is not the end of the story. Labor attorneys receiving money from unions and PACs are suing companies like Uber and Lyft in states with laws that give them an opening.
Worker discontent is driving events like the Great Resignation, Striketober, and protests. Public discontent is evident in events like flash mobs and brand boycotts. The pandemic empowered employees as tens of millions of workers continued to show up for work when others were in lockdown and safe at home. As they publicly demanded better pay and more health and safety measures, a public sentiment supported their efforts, and demands grew. Adding a labor shortage into the mix and a feeling there is gender, race, and class inequities in terms of pay and opportunities, it's not surprising the public is showing more support for strikes, protests, boycotts, and walkouts.
For employers, research shows that extreme protest actions that are perceived as harmful to others and highly disruptive, like smash-and-grab events and blocking highways, lead to less public support.
After eight months of strikes, the Warrior Met Coal Mine strike devolved into violence on the picket lines. The union workers began smashing car windows, attacking working miners crossing the picket line, and blocking work entrances. The result was a judge prohibited picketing within 300 years of Warrior Met facilities. The employer bypassed the NLRB and filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County. The local community made it clear they support the right to protest peacefully, but violence is unacceptable.
On the flip side, a Gallup poll found 68 percent of Americans support labor unions which is the highest that number has been since 1965.
The PRO Act is pro-union in every sense of the word. Its provisions are designed to make it easier for employees to join unions and grow their membership. One of its provisions repeals restrictions on secondary boycotts and picketing. This means a union with a dispute with your business could pressure neutral businesses to stop doing business with your company. Picketing restrictions are removed through the elimination of the NLRA sections 8(b)(4) and 8(b)(7). In addition, the PRO Act allows intermittent strikes, which means employees could repeatedly stop work sporadically and at will. These are difficult for any employer to anticipate to prepare a rapid response.
Once again, the UnionProof team wants to emphasize the fact that, although the PRO Act is stalled in the Senate, it doesn't mean the provisions are stalled. The NLRB has already made it clear it will implement as many provisions as possible through its decisions and guidance.
The "cancel culture" has become the voice of historically underserved people who have difficulty driving change through traditional messaging. It's become an empowerment strategy supported by the availability of social media and the internet in general. People use social media and the internet to promote the boycott of brands, effectively attacking the company's bottom line to place attention on social justice.
In the past, underserved communities were marginalized and had few options for sharing their lived experiences. Today, members of these communities can easily make a post, tweet, or YouTube video that quickly goes viral.
As Kian Bakhtiari wrote for Forbes, "cancel culture represents the voice of the voiceless." Bakhtiari makes the case that businesses risk alienating a large portion of their customer base by staying neutral, but they also cannot make empty statements of solidarity. Brands that make promises need to keep those promises. Brands that use social issues merely as marketing ploys to sell more products will face a backlash.
Minority unions are not traditional unions. They are groups of people who advocate for worker rights and social justice issues. Minority unions are not formal organizing groups and aren't certified by the NLRB. As unions found it more difficult to grow their membership through traditional union organizing campaigns, they promoted and funded alternative groups. Minority unions appeal to a broader base that includes members of younger generations, progressive thinkers, social activists, and white-collar workers.
The minority unions adopt a variety of issues that are not typical of historical union topics, like wages and benefits. They include sales of products to a particular customer that are considered harmful to humans, environmental damage due to company operations, racial inequities, and having a voice in governance, plus other ESG issues.
Employees are lawfully allowed to engage in collective action when not a union. The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) formed a minority union, and social activism is the foundational principle. The Google union includes temporary employees, contractors, vendors, and full-time employees. The union wants working conditions to be inclusive and fair; have the freedom to decline work on projects that aren't aligned with personal values; hold perpetrators of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation accountable; and give all workers have the same benefits. The union promotes "solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice." It is supported by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.
The AWU is a good example of the types of features that minority unions offer.
Labor unions help and advise minority unions in the hope that minority unions will one day formally organize. The impact of minority unions' efforts is largely dependent on two things. First, on the union's ability to gain media attention, and second, the employer's response to the union as well. An employer is not required to recognize a union that does not have the support of a majority of employees in a bargaining unit.
Micro-units are small units of organized employees. They are bargaining unions made up of a small portion of the total workforce. It's a strategy labor unions use to gain a foothold in a business when they can't organize a larger group of workers. Employers inevitably challenge the effort to organize a small group of employees by saying the proposed unit shares an "overwhelming community of interest" with the larger workforce. It's harder for labor unions to organize a larger group of employees.
The Republican-led NLRB was not favorable to micro-unit organizing. In 2022, it's likely more micro-units will form with the support of the NLRB because a union-friendly NLRB Board is now in place. A Bloomberg analysis of small bargaining units found that the smallest groups of workers are the real driving force of unionization.
In October 2020, The Gig Workers Collective was exposed as a UFCW front. The Gig Workers collective had formed as a 501c3 and claimed to be a "grassroots" representative of gig workers. The truth is it is partially supported and managed by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Labor unions typically back worker groups and worker centers, but not always.
Workers are increasingly deciding not to join forces with a union but would still act like a union. Target Workers Unite (TWU) is a good example. Its members are Target employees in 44 states. The group was started by Adam Ryan.
What makes this group so different is that Ryan wanted to start a worker movement that does not rely on unions. He believes labor unions bargain for better working conditions but not for workers to have real power to control their future. The big labor unions offer training or help negotiate contracts but aren't staying around to keep a movement going.
TWU has no outside donors and no nonprofit status. It is a group of rank-and-file Target employees who stay connected through the internet. The Why Unite section says, "We seek solidarity with all workers across corporate lines to raise our standards for the benefit of everyone. We can, must, and will get organized to protect ourselves since we cannot count on the corporations to look out for our interests as workers."
There is so much coming together that it is difficult for employers to keep track of the multitude of ways employees are organizing. The expression "truth in power" is applied to encouraging people to speak up to people in charge, but it applies to business in the sense employers must always be sincere and honest in their support of social activism. Speaking the truth is powerful.
So one of the most important ways to respond when targeted by social activists is to respond quickly but with one major caveat. Don't respond in a heavy-handed or self-righteous way because it will only add fuel to the issues. Take the high road and develop a carefully worded response that has teeth in it. Teeth mean the truth. If a company makes a mistake, admitting it can diffuse the situation.
Following are some additional recommendations in the laundry list form.
Develop a social media specialist who monitors mentions of the company, manages social media responses and is fully trained on the National Labor Relations Act.
Employees and the public can't be fooled. A survey by Cone Communications found that 85 percent of Americans expect companies to address racial inequality. Just as importantly, 65 percent of Americans will do research to verify a company is authentic when it does address an issue. It could be the public or employees who deliver the backlash, and backlash points to gaps in organizational practices and thus vulnerability to union organizing.
There is so much happening at once now, and a lot of the change is found in corporate campaigns. The changes started before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated the whirlwind of social activism. It's much more complicated today to stay union-free and going to get even more complicated in 2022 as the union-friendly NLRB pursues its agenda. Projections, an IRI Consultants company, and its UnionProof team actively maintain current knowledge of events impacting organizations and their leaders and managers, adding and adapting employer support tools as needed.
The days of labor unions pursuing traditional union organizing campaigns are not over by any means. In fact, some would say it's simpler for employees to take the traditional path of unionization when they have issues because it's protected by the NLRA and decades of administrative law judge rulings. Others say the law is on the side of employers, and that's why corporate campaigns are necessary.
Social activism is adding to the ways employees gain a voice, but it also remains uncharted territory in many aspects. The fact is that a labor union is usually in the background of corporate campaigns, monitoring social media, helping non-union unions succeed, egging employees on to protests and boycotts, and anxiously waiting for the NLRB to become more pro-union. The year 2022 should be one employers enter fully prepared to stay union-free amid the vortex of change. Don't just assume you've got everything under control, since change can happen in an instant. IRI Consultants' specialized Corporate Campaign Vulnerability Assessment is a simple way to identify existing and potential vulnerabilities a union may use in a campaign. Don't wait to proactively address any potential issues that could lead to a problem for your organization.
Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.