FAQs about Unions: A Round-Up Answering Common Questions

We've been asked many FAQs about unions over the years while offering many of the solutions to help organizations remain union-free. So much has occurred in 2021 concerning labor unions, and in so many ways, it's panned out exactly as expected. Labor unions have been forming for more than 100 years, and for many decades, they used the same strategies. Along came technology, triggering many changes like it's done across industries, adding to the challenge of staying union-free. The last couple of years have seen significant changes in how unions organize as they also expanded the types of employee issues they focus on. At the same time, labor unions are using many of the same tactics they have always used to put pressure on employers, like strikes and lashing out at employers via the media.  

Current Events Surrounding Unions

There were two seismic events in 2020-2021 generating change in the labor union arena. First, the election of pro-union Joe Biden and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in November 2020 breathed new life into the unionization movement. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted employees in numerous ways, generating deep concerns over things like health and safety and job security.  

It's time to step back and review the unionization effort across the country and what you should focus on to stay union-free. You can begin by reviewing the blog, What is a Union and What Are Organizing Campaigns? Then read through the following FAQs about unions, organizing, and staying union-free.  

Should I worry about unions? 

Understandably, one of the most common FAQs about unions is, should you worry about unions, to begin with? Yes, you should worry if your organization wants to remain union-free. Though union membership has steadily declined over the last 20 years, it's not a time for complacency. According to the Department of Labor, the 2020 union membership was up by .5 percent compared to 2019. Private sector union membership rates increased from 6.2 percent to 6.3 percent. 

The small increase may seem encouraging, but 2021 is a pivotal year. Labor law experts expect union membership to increase at a more rapid rate because the legal landscape is changing in favor of unions. Unions are always fighting for new members; as we discuss in the blog When Should I Worry About a Union?, you shouldn't tell yourself that you'll simply wait for signs of unionization before taking action.   

By the time the signs of unionization appear, the union has already made good inroads into generating interest among your employees. This puts your organization on the defensive because you must find legal ways for leadership to respond, and it's a treacherous path unless you have developed Laborwise leadership. In addition, some indications of unions are not obvious, which you can read about in the Subtle Signs of Union Organizing

One of the most common FAQs about #unions is, should you worry about them? Yes, you should, if your organization wants to remain #unionfree. #unionavoidance

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What has changed that is creating an imperative for employers? 

The national narrative on unions has changed. We have discussed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) and its implications many times. The Act has passed the House of Representatives but remains stalled in the Senate. When the PRO Act was reviewed, UnionProof reminded employers that determined political and other union supporters would find other ways to get at least some of the provisions passed. That is precisely what is happening.  

For example, there is an attempt now to get PRO Act provisions in the Democrat's reconciliation bill. If that doesn't work, there is no doubt there will be other attempts. The provisions hiding in the reconciliation bill include penalizing employers for discussing union organizing at staff meetings and making union dues deductible up to $250 a year. There will be other attempts to get the PRO Act provisions that help unions into other legislation. You can read about the major PRO Act provisions in Getting Proactive Ahead of the PRO Act. 

The change in the membership of the National Labor Relations Board is another significant change that is already leading to more pro-union decisions and guidances, more ULPs decided in favor of employees, and more employers forced to change the status of some employees to make them union eligible. The NLRB can decide non-employees like contracted workers are employees, effectively implementing a PRO Act provision through NLRB regulations on a case-by-case basis. 

An NLRB General Counsel Memorandum GC 21-04 changed the direction of the NLRB towards union support. It has a number of pro-union provisions, like a broader legal standard that makes it more difficult to maintain contractor or gig worker status of many workers, making it easier to find reasons to file a complaint with the NLRB over NLRA-protected activity and allowing union access to company email systems and to the employer's worksite for conducted concerted activity.  

How do unions organize?  

Another extremely common question among the FAQs about unions: is how do unions organize? In many cases, unions continue to organize in the traditional way, which you can read about in our blog, Five Basic Steps Unions Use to Organize Your Employees. Unions are also finding new ways to organize employees or ways to help employees organize, believing they will eventually join the labor union.  

  • Independent Unions - In the blog How Independent Workers Unions Are Different… or Are They?, UnionProof discusses the formation of independent worker unions. They call themselves independent, though major labor unions front them.  
  • Micro-Units – In Micro-Units: The Growing Union Organization Threat, you can read about smaller bargaining units of employees who choose to join a union. Just recently, seven people (2 votes are under review) at a Dollar General store voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. This unionization effort also demonstrates how employees are choosing to join a union for reasons other than just pay. One of the employees said she liked her job and her store manager but didn't like Dollar General's upper management. Shellie Parsons said, "We hope to be treated fairly. We want the respect and acknowledgment of our work. We want to get paid what we should be getting paid, including holiday pay."  
  • Digital organizing – Unions are using technology to organize. The various union tech-based organizing tactics are reviewed in How Unions are Using Digital Communications to Organize Your Employees. Some union organizers use social media, texting, and email for organizing. Another tool of unions is the social media app which is invite-only, like the Clubhouse app, and described in the blog, How Unions Could Use the Clubhouse App to Organize Your Employees
FAQs about unions

How do I know if I am vulnerable to unionization? 

You can determine vulnerability to unionization by taking our free vulnerability assessment. This is perhaps one of the most important union FAQs to address. Like the signs of unionization, vulnerability develops in both subtle and obvious ways. The blog post titled Union Vulnerability Assessment walks you through some of the internal and external points to consider in order to identify where organizational improvement is needed to minimize openings for unions. 

The reality today is that unions are embracing any type of employee dissatisfaction. They used to concentrate on things like pay rates, benefits, and working hours. Vulnerability to unions could develop now over issues like changes in state laws to support unions, competitors that unionize, employee complaints that are not resolved, a toxic organizational culture develops, and/or leaders who are unskilled in developing positive employee relations, to name a few.   

In the blog post Is My Company Vulnerable to Union Organizing? we wanted to cover a multitude of reasons employers and organizations typically face a union. All employers and HR professionals should understand what vulnerabilities their organization may face, and it's essential to examine a holistic view of your company. There are so many factors that can play a part in your union-free strategy. For example, both organizational culture and leadership skills together contribute to employee engagement. The number and type of formal grievances filed directly result from managers and supervisors who fail to respond to employee issues in a meaningful way.  

Perhaps your organizational leaders are uncomfortable discussing unions with employees or even actively avoid it, so you don't have an employee-facing website explaining the company philosophy on unions which also gives employees an easy way to ask questions of upper management. You don't have to wait for unions to become active in your organization to talk about unions, and offering a union FAQs page is great proof of management transparency. In What are the Benefits of FAQs on a Campaign Website, you will find the reasons why an FAQ webpage is effective.  

How do I respond if I detect signs of unionization? 

When a manager or supervisor understands the signs of unionization, it's important the person reports it immediately to Human Resources and senior management. The sooner you respond, the more likely you are to stay union-free. There are steps you can take, which are outlined in various blogs. Begin with How to Respond to Union OrganizingUnion Promises: Five Ways You Can Respond With the Truth, and Tips for Responding Online to Union Organizing 

What if a union organizing campaign starts despite all my efforts to stay union-free? 

The short answer to this union FAQ is: It happens. Despite taking all the right steps, the NLRB notice informs you a petition was filed to formally hold a union organizing campaign. Don't panic! There are many ways your leaders can encourage employees to vote "no" to unionizing, but you must quickly act with a coordinated response. You need a set of resources, like a corporate union campaign website, to explain the reasons the company should stay union-free. The blog Using a Dedicated Website to Communicate During a Union Organizing Drive presents a lot of practical suggestions. 

You may need to quickly implement a digital communication strategy to keep employees informed and give your managers and supervisors a quick leadership refresher course on labor law and the TIPS and FOE rules, to name a couple of more critical steps. 

The key is to utilize all the resources available. UnionProof has pre-prepared resources that include posters, leadership training videos, consultants with decades of experience in staving off unions, and website developers who can rapidly customize a union website.  

What should my organization focus on to stay union-free? 

Another extremely important among the FAQs about unions is how to actually stay union-free. It requires a comprehensive organizational approach. We have written extensively on various ways to stay union-free. Read Learn the 5 Ways to Stay Union-Free That Don't Involve Fighting Unions and 9 Ways to Stay Union Free in 2019 (That We Bet you Haven't Thought of!) 

Some things will never change over the years, like providing great working conditions. You can develop strategies like those explained in How to Stay Union Free: Three Strategies and Their Effects and 5 Union Avoidance Tips That Will Transform Your Strategy 

union FAQs

Following are some common union FAQs to proactively address to stay union-free. 

How do the PRO Act provisions impact my employee relations strategy?

There is no doubt that just the possibility of passage of the PRO Act is affecting your strategy to develop positive employee relations. Already, as discussed in The Impact of the PRO Act on Your Positive Employee Relations Strategy, the NLRB will issue decisions and guidances that support the PRO Act provisions (even though it's not law!).   

It's not just the PRO Act, either, and there are many other laws in the works that pro-union legislators hope to eventually pass. You should always keep in mind that unions have the government as their voice now, so it's more important than ever to take a myriad of steps as outlined in the blog just mentioned, like reviewing HR policies and training your leaders on employee engagement.   

How do I get ahead of the PRO Act?

Getting Proactive Ahead of the PRO Act is a blog on the issues you can review now in preparation for possible passage of PRO Act provisions. For example, make sure your employees and contractors are correctly assigned to the right employment category. Pro-union political supporters at the state and federal levels are pushing for many contracted workers to be deemed employees, so they join the union.  

How do I stay prepared for union organizing at all times?

You don't have much time to oppose union organizing, so you should always maintain a way to rapidly respond to indications your employees are talking to unions. Do you need a rapid response team? Maybe or maybe not. The blog Do I Need a Rapid Response Team to Prevent Union Organizing? can provide some guidance on developing a team or developing a strategy to stay prepared. 

What should I do to stay union-free?

One of the most common union FAQs is simple, you just want to know what to do to keep your organization union-free. In the Employer Toolkit, we discuss 8 Ways to Prepare for Union Organizing. Each of these eight steps requires a strategy. For example, you need a system to maintain knowledge of current labor laws and NLRB rulings – especially now because the NLRB is rapidly moving towards a pro-union agenda. You need a strategy for developing positive employee relations and a positive, supportive organizational culture.   

What is the Proactive Era?

In the blog post We're in the Proactive Era: Here's How Labor and Employee Relations are Forever Changed, we discuss the importance of meeting changing employee needs. The younger generations of workers expect their managers to adopt a more holistic approach to leadership. Holistic employee relations means your managers and supervisors use a more humanistic leadership style in which they consider the personal and work lives of employees. You can read more about this topic in A Holistic Approach to Establishing a Union-Free Culture 

There are numerous strikes in progress now, like the 10,000 workers at John Deere facilities and the 1,400 Kellogg workers. CNN interviewed some of the current and likely strikers. It is notable that many are not driven by wages or benefits. They want to "do their jobs the way they believe they should be done, and to gain basic improvements in the quality of their lives, such as time with their families, which they say they deserve." At the same time, the Resignation Nation phenomenon is in full swing. Frustrated and angry employees are walking off their jobs, and many are walking straight towards unions. 

A holistic leadership approach ensures workers have a voice and feel included; workers are given some job autonomy; employees have access to work resources and get training opportunities, and so on. It's called "proactive" because you take steps to develop positive employee relations and don't wait for issues to arise.   

Why is leadership training on labor law so necessary?

There is a tendency to train managers on labor laws like TIPS and FOE and then allow gaps in training over time. Offering regular leadership development is the best way to develop positive employee relations and stay union-free. When you read How Can I Turn Managers Into Leaders? you will have a good understanding of the difference between managing vs. leading. Effective managers know the law but focus on developing employee engagement so that unions don't become an issue. 

union FAQ

The rapid pace at which labor laws are changing now means you leave yourself vulnerable to charges of Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) if your leadership is not kept current on labor laws. Your leaders need regular training so they know what they can legally say and do. Regular training also reminds them of the connection between staying union-free and communication skills. 

Why is employee engagement so important?

High employee engagement delivers a host of benefits which include increased productivity and lower turnover. It also contributes to the very things that help an organization stay union-free, like positive company culture and employee inclusion and belonging. All of these types of factors together support staying union-free. 

We have written numerous blog posts that address employee engagement from different angles. Check out blogs like Why is Employee Engagement Important?, the Ten Building Blocks of Employee Engagement, and The Link Between Leadership Training and Employee Engagement.   

Employee #engagement contributes to higher productivity, #positive company #culture, and employee #inclusion and #belonging. #employeeengagement

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Why should I talk to employees about unions?

Are you afraid to discuss unions with your employees? In the blog 4 Reasons We Still Avoid Talking About Unions, we discuss the reasons employers continue to struggle. It's a mistake to avoid talking about unions because doing so leaves employees free to think whatever they want, even if their perspective is not based on facts, or to be more influenced by unions.  

Your leaders should learn How to Talk to Your Employees About Collective Bargaining. Think of it like this: Your employees go home and regularly see pro-union talk and activities on television at home, meaning they are inundated with one side of the story. Educate your employees on the reasons to stay union-free.  

Integrated Strategy to Stay Union-Free

The bottom line after answering so many FAQs about unions is that staying union-free takes real effort. You must develop a positive, supportive organizational culture and develop skilled, emotionally intelligent leaders. You also need to train leaders and employees on unions, develop positive employee relations, and ensure your employees have a voice. Additionally, you need to implement the appropriate strategies for avoiding and addressing union organizing, and so on.  

The past year has been one of change in labor law and labor relations, adding a new level of challenge. This only makes it even more important to stay informed and not skip critical steps to stay union-free.  

The FAQs about Unions Continue

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the FAQs about unions. There are more that come up from time to time, but we wanted to cover some of the basics and round up many of the common questions we've received. This should give you a basic understanding of what area to address, focus on, and strategies you can implement to find your vulnerabilities. At Projections, with IRI, we offer a myriad of resources to help your organization stay union-free and promote a satisfied workforce that sees no need to join a union. We have in-house expertise able to develop customized employee training videos, assist with developing a strategy for preventing a union organizing campaign, and developing leader websites. There are eLearning labor relations leadership courses, LEAD Academy that develops leaders as coaches, and numerous union-related resources that assist with preparing for and responding to union organizing.  

As union activity heats up across the country, it's time for your organization to ensure it's fully prepared. Along with IRI, we can also provide management consulting that helps employers develop customized proactive strategies supporting positive employee relations.

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

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.