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Prevent Union Organizing
The rise in positive sentiment surrounding unions, coupled with the "most labor-friendly President ever" and increased visibility of some national organizing campaigns have already impacted union organizing in 2022. The Whitehouse Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment has laid out a national strategy for purposefully increasing union membership. At the same time, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is pro-union, with General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo making it clear, via GC memos, that the Board intends on changing the rules in favor of unions. A lot of momentum is coming for the rise of national organizing campaigns.
On a single day (March 31, 2022), the IRI Consultants' research team identified nine petitions the Communication Workers of America (CWA) union has filed in New York against studios like Netflix and Apple. What does this mean? The answer is not clear yet, but new trends are forming that are likely to extend beyond the tech-based industry, reaching into all industries in some manner.
Many measurable changes are already occurring that point to a significant increase in union activity and union membership. This leads organizations to wonder if more people are in favor of unions this year than years prior. In the first three months of 2022, the NLRB reported 681 petitions filed in representation cases. That's nearly twice the number of filings for the same period last year (384). If representation filings keep pace with 2021, when the total for the year was 1,755, we can expect another 2,319 representation filings before the end of this year. This alarming trend puts all employers on notice that they are vulnerable to union organizing.
National organizing campaigns target companies with many locations across the country, like Starbucks and Amazon. The idea is that the union successfully organizes one location, which leads to additional locations unionizing. The union may first utilize a corporate campaign of public pressure that makes corporate management look bad, leveraging the effort to weaken the employer's opposition to organizing and persuade employees to vote in favor of union organizing.
Following is a summary of some of the activities in this category.
The Starbucks union effort is a sign of the times. The first Starbucks voted to join a union in 2021. Now there have been over 160 petitions to date, of which nine have gone to a vote and eight more locations union-certified as representatives. One location defeated the union. All eight union wins were in 2022. After the flagship store in Manhattan is organized, the union will probably include Starbucks' manufacturing division in future efforts. The store of almost 100 employees is only one of three roasteries that Starbucks operates. Starbucks unionizing is a major event because it's a national chain in the food and beverage industry, which is difficult to unionize since employee turnover is high.
Starbucks Workers United is a collective of Starbucks partners across the Buffalo region and is supported by Workers United Upstate, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has been targeting the New York studio industry. Just on March 30, 2022, there were nine petitions filed against studios. All were CWA petitions filed in New York, and all were for micro-units of less than 25 employees. Following is a list of studios with filed petitions for representation:
The gaming website Polygon is in partnership with Vox Media and talked to Vodeo employees and the CODE-CWA campaign lead. Vodeo Games was founded in 2021, releasing its first game in September. The new company's 13-employee workforce, consisting of employees and contract workers, is entirely remote and located in the U.S. and Canada. The small staff formed an independent union called Vodeo Workers United. The employees were inspired to unionize because of union activity at other game industry and tech industry companies. Since this is voluntary recognition, there is no need for a union vote and will negotiate a contract.
As mentioned in the following section, the workers are often not unionizing for more money. Workers, like those at Vodeo Games, say they want a "fair, equitable workplace, and to lock-in benefits they already have and love – like a four-day workweek." They were focused on:
CODE-CWA campaign lead Emma Kinema told Polygon, "They're not organizing because there's some big scary boss, like Bobby Kotick or someone," Kinema said. "They're organizing because they care so much about the work they do, and they want more of a say over how it's done — the conditions in which they work to actually make those games that they care about." The gaming studio industry is poised to experience significant growth in the number of unions.
Vodeo Workers United partnered with the Communication Workers of America's Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE-CWA). The CWA helped organize the first tabletop role-playing game company Paizo in October 2021. The United Workers of Paizo union, consisting of 50 employees, was voluntarily recognized by management after a work stoppage.
There are also national unions that are worker-led, like the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The NUHW is an independent, member-driven union with 15,000 members that include medical technicians and technologies, psychologists, pharmacists, housekeepers, dietary workers, nursing assistants, nurses, mental health clinicians, drug rehabilitation counselors, and engineers.
In an interesting approach, NUHW represented 700 workers at the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital, which included nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, lab technicians, operating room technicians, pharmacy technicians, and radiology technicians. Then 850 registered nurses and healthcare professionals voted to leave the United Nurses Associations of California (UNAC) and join NUHW. The healthcare workers who newly joined NUHW include registered nurses, social workers, case managers, occupational therapists, clinical lab scientists, speech therapists, physical therapists, and pharmacists. The message is that all healthcare workers at every professional and service level are in favor of unions and contributing to the rise of unions.
There are a lot of researchers trying to figure out why younger workers, like millennials, are in favor of unions. According to a Gallup poll:
Why are younger workers in favor of unions and becoming major contributors to growing unions in one form or another? There are several reasons.
Zane Dalal, executive vice president of Benefits Programs Administration (BPA), said, "The human element is diminishing…unions might bring back that personal side."
Research by IRI Consultants found that of the 681 representation petitions filed in the last three months (Jan-March 2022), 611 had proposed small bargaining units of fewer than 100 employees. A small bargaining unit could refer to all the employees in a small business, but it also includes micro-units or micro-unions in which a portion of the workforce joins a union. For example, production line workers unionize, but the customer service representatives do not. The micro-unit has different interests from the rest of the workforce. A large company could have multiple micro-units in its workforce.
There is a tendency to think small businesses are not likely to be in favor of unions or unionize. Looking through the NLRB's recent election results dispels that myth. For example, GEO Secure Services in Colorado had 16 eligible voters consisting of all full-time and regular part-time employees, and nine voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 21. A Starbucks in Seattle had 13 eligible voters, and nine voted to organize under the Workers United Union. Though Starbucks is a large company, it is being organized on a one-by-one basis, with more than 30 petitions currently in process. The large labor unions and independent organizing companies like United are targeting small businesses, offering to help them organize and then charging a fee to provide support after a union contract is signed.
Unions are experiencing rising win rates as more employees are in favor of unions. The following NLRB statistics demonstrate the rise of unions.
Many of the industries experiencing a rise in union elections have not historically been part of the unionization effort, like the studios, tech industry, and restaurants. Today, white-collar workers and low-skilled workers are increasingly unionizing. In the past, low-skilled workers didn't unionize because there is so much turnover in the hospitality and restaurant industry, and there is a big difference in compensation between servers and other kitchen workers. Now, more small groups of employees in industry segments like small restaurants are joining unions.
For example, the 17 employees at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis voted 19 to 3 to join a union, becoming the first unionized craft distillery. UNITE HERE is a labor union representing 300,000 employees in Canada and the United States. This labor union represents people who work in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries.
Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) are also increasing in number, giving the pro-union NLRB more opportunities to decide in favor of unions.
On February 1, 2022, the NRLB issued a new memorandum that announced a new initiative to seek injunctions under Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act in cases where workers have been subjected to threats or other coercive conduct during a union organizing campaign. Section 10(j) of the NLRA gives the NLRB the authority to seek temporary injunctions against unions and employers in federal district courts to stop ULPs while the case is being litigated before the NLRB or the administrative law judge. There are 15 categories of labor disputes that fall within Section 10(j), ranging from interfering with an organization's campaign to retaliation against employees for utilizing NLRB processes. The goal of the NLRB initiative is to address labor disputes as early as possible.
There are so many takeaways from the rise of unions. One of the points to take special note of is that some employees, like those at Vodeo, are unionizing even though they are satisfied with their current workplace. This is contributing to growing unions. Some employees at studios are organizing because they want to secure their voice in decision-making in the future and influence other companies in the industry.
It's very important to build the kind of union-free organizational culture and workplace that supports what employees desire now and not just what they used to expect, like pay increases. The younger generations are more idealistic and focused on issues like social justice, employee voice, and supporting fellow workers -- that includes traditional employees and contracted or gig workers.
A second critical point to bear in mind is that your workforce can unionize much more quickly now than in the past because of communication technologies like social media and mobile phone apps that enable virtual organizing. The independent unions are usually not as independent as they seem at first glance. Most are supported by the large labor unions like the AFL-CIO and CWA in some way, from giving organizing advice to enabling affiliate membership.
Finally, remember that no industry is exempt from union organizing. Every business in every industry needs to identify its vulnerabilities to unionizing and take steps to address them. It costs much less to learn how to stay union-free in the face of the many changes to union organizing taking place compared to the cost of unionization. If you aren't sure how to build a union-free organizational culture or how to strengthen employee engagement, help is available through management consulting, an investment with a high ROI.
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.