Current Trends in Labor Relations

Current Trends in Labor Relations

As highly-skilled professionals in employee and labor relations, we are all acutely aware that corporate labor relations has been forever changed by the current climate. NLRB elections over the last year have been conducted by mail, lowering voter turnout from around 78% to closer to 69%. And when an organizing drive got to a vote, the unions won in over 72% of those elections. But what do those statistics mean to us, the strategy with which we approach our direct connection to employees, and the future of labor relations in general? Joining us today is Nick Munday, Managing Director for our parent company, IRI Consultants. Here, he explains:

  • What labor trends we should be paying attention to;
  • The current status of the Protecting The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, and changes in the NLRB;
  • How unions shifted their organizing strategy during the pandemic; and
  • Why being proactive and building a "firewall" against labor activity can help protect companies!


If you prefer to read along while you listen, we've done all the hard work for you! We listened back to this episode and took notes below, and access is free! 


What Labor Trends Should We Be Paying Attention To?

  • There are numerous current trends in labor relations that can and will affect businesses.
    • Labor issues are having a greater impact on organizations and their workforce than ever before.
    • Labor strife can impact consumer buying behavior along with employee recruitment and retention.
  • With the new presidential administration, along with the hopeful end of the COVID-19 Pandemic, employers are wrestling with how to look ahead.
  • Today, employees have much more choice in where they want to work than ever before.
    • The U.S. Department of Labor reported that nearly four million American quit their jobs in April 2021. 
  • Workplaces are also being redesigned in the aftermath of the pandemic and the rise of remote work. 
  • Recent social issues and awareness are impacting the workplace as well.
  • Overall, it has become more complicated than ever before to lead employees.
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My Company Doesn’t Have Labor Concerns - Why Should We Be Concerned?

  • It is not uncommon to see organizations quickly go from no labor issues to full-blown organizing campaigns.
  • Labor unions have a significant “first mover” advantage and can gain a lot of support when employers aren’t being proactive, resolving issues, or educating employees.
    • With remote and hybrid work models taking off, it can be even harder for employers to spot early warning signs.
  • Meanwhile, labor unions have become increasingly savvy at using digital tools to target and connect with employees.
    • Social media and other online communication platforms are a major factor in this threat, and unions tend to be very nimble when developing new strategies to leverage those tools.

Update: The Protecting The Right To Organize (PRO) Act

  • Right now the PRO Act is at somewhat of a standstill in Congress, but it's not dead yet.
    • It passed throught he House of Represntatives earlier in the year, but has yet to gain the 60 votes needed in the Senate.
    • Unless the Senate abandons the filibuster rule, it is not likely to pass as a standalone bill in the near future.
    • However, Congressional Democrats have been actively inserting elements from the PRO Act into numerous other legislative passages.
  • Organized labor is putting a lot of pressure on legislators to pass the PRO Act in any way possible.
  • There are numerous changes to existing law in the PRO Act - at least 50. If passed in the current form, it would become the most sweeping change to labor law in the U.S. since 1935 and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act.

NLRB Changes

  • We are currently in a transitional period at the National Labor Relations Board. 
    • On inauguration day, President Biden summarily fired the general council of the NLRB and appointed an acting general counsel.
  • The acting general counsel's office rescinded 10 memos from the previous general counsel and has issued a new memo in March, putting the employer community on notice that it will expand its view of what is considered to be a protected activity by employees under the National Labor Relations Act.
    • This could possibly include social activism activities.
  • Every employer should expect vigorous enforcement activity from the NLRB, particularly out of the general counsel's office.
  • Employers should also expect to see more pro-employee and pro-union decisions coming out of the NLRB moving forward, including rules that will make it easier for unions to organize.

The Proactive Era Of Labor Relations

  • This new era is mostly due to the speed at which information and knowledge is transferred today. 
  • Mr. Munday believes that the most effective employers are those that commit resources to training leaders on how to actively engage their employees on a regular basis.
    • A great leader shouldn't need to wait for survey results to tell them what issues their employees are having.
      • These skills are not innate, the employer community needs to devote resources to developing leaders in this way.
  • The other side of being proactive is creating a comprehensive labor relations strategy upfront.This will allow organizations to stay ahead of union organizing efforts, instead of reacting to them.

Understanding Vulnerabilities To A Union Organizing Drive

  • First and foremost, leaders need to ensure that peers understand why this is a strategic imperative within the organization.
  • Leaders must work to understand the issues employees are facing.
    • This process should involve more than just analyzing employee opinions, surveys, etc.

Tools To Gather Data

  • A good labor relations assessment tool that identifies areas in which you are already excelling and areas with opportunities is an invaluable tool in creating a roadmap for a labor relations strategy.
  • Mr. Munday suggests to begin, organizations should look at existing employee data and build some form of a “dashboard”.
    • For example, combine employee opinion survey data with data regarding turnover.
    • From there, companies can start looking for patterns or areas of vulnerability.
  • To complement internal data, companies should also build an external data dashboard that includes information like union organizing by geographic area, union density, etc.
  • At the same time, Mr. Munday suggests not to over-focus on solely data points.
    • This is a human issue, so humans should be consulted and understood in order to achieve the full perspective of the issue. 

“Put Out The Fire First, Then Build A Firewall”

  • Waiting for a labor issue to occur before addressing the topic will cause destruction and financial loss.
    • Ideally, the labor issue should be avoided altogether - and that can be done by proactively putting the right strategies in place.
    • The “firewall” strategy should also not solely be focused on prevention of labor issues.
    • An effective labor relations strategy brings expertise from numerous different areas such as communications, organizational development, legal, etc.
  • Buy-in and support from a variety of different areas throughout the organization is vital.

Are Dedicated Labor Relations Personnel Essential?

  • This may depend on the size of the organization, industry, and how much labor activity the organization is facing.
  • Having some dedicated expertise is beneficial, but smaller employers may prefer to use outside resources, while others may choose to build an internal team.

Balancing Unionized and Union-Free Workforces

  • Determining how to maintain a connection with both types of employees is a strategic decision for a company.
  • Organizations that want union representation to not look quite as attractive as being able to directly work with your leader may offer slightly better wages, benefits terms, and conditions of employment than what the union has negotiated for their employees.
  • Another aspect is really making sure that leaders understand the difference between managing a unionized workforce vs. managing a non-represented workforce where they can work directly with their employees to advocate for their issues.

The Pandemic’s Effect

  • The pandemic has obviously created a very large amount of stress in the workplace, regardless of industry.
    • In particular, healthcare, retail, and other sectors where workers became “essential workers,” the pandemic has taken a massive psychological toll on those employees.
  • Some employers and employees have even shown signs of PTSD as a result of the pandemic..
  • Another hot topic is the permanence of remote work, which was previously discussed on ProjectHR.
    • With the success of remote work models throughout the pandemic, it remains to be seen if certain organizations even need a physical workspace to operate successfully.
  • Labor unions also took advantage of the pandemic and were using it to organize very actively.
    • Topics like employee safety, PPE, employer protections, etc. were all used to start organizing drives.
    • This is expected to continue well past the pandemic.

Available Tools

  • Once there is a clear gap analysis and a picture of what is needed to prioritize, other tools can come into play to help facilitate a healthy workplace.
  • One specific tool is vulnerability assessment.
    • Projections offers an online vulnerability assessment that can help companies to understand where they may need work and where they have a good plan already in place to prevent union organizing. 
  • Training should also be utilized. 
    • This includes different types of training such as in-person facilitator-led training as well as online synchronous training.
  • Asynchronous learning is another option.
    • This includes e-learning in which leaders can train on their own time or at their own pace, then go out and find the information that they need to make sure that they stay current on issues.
  • In terms of communication, employers should be leveraging digital and social media.
    • This allows employers to have a good sense of what discussions are occurring outside of the workplace and will help to stay up-to-date with employee concerns.

Recommendations For Leaders

  • Union avoidance and labor relations in general can be an uncomfortable topic for leaders, but it is a topic that they need to get comfortable with, regardless.
    • It's not really a matter of if it's going to be something that they need to face at some point, it's typically a matter of when.
  • The goal should be for leaders to be comfortable addressing these issues ahead of time.
  • Research has shown that the relationship between employees and their first-line leaders is highly correlated with their union support.
  • For leaders who are in high-risk environments, education and training are going to be more valuable and typically deliver the best results in union avoidance.
  • A strong training plan that brings in real world examples is powerful in helping leaders to build the ideal union-free culture, and will give leaders the confidence to communicate with employees successfully.

IRI Consultants

  • IRI has been helping companies to develop strategies to remain union-free.
  • IRI uses a holistic strategy that utilizes expertise in labor relations, communications, organizational development, and digital solutions to provide highly customized solutions for all clients.
  • You can learn more about IRI Consultants here.

Nick Munday Background

  • Currently serves as Managing Director at IRI Consultants
  • Mr. Munday specializes in labor relations, organizational development, and internal communications.

Contact

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About the Author Jacqueline Gregory

As a creative, persuasive communications professional with extensive experience guiding projects from concept through completion Jacqui has produced custom communications for some of the world's best known brands. Producing ProjectHR has been one of her favorite ways to engage and delight HR and Labor Relations professionals!

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