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Tagged with: Prevent Union Organizing
Employers are dealing with a tsunami of labor issues that include labor shortages, inflation putting pressure on employee wages, a pro-union government and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), low worker morale, changing expectations concerning work and employer responsibilities, increased employee activism, a possible 2023 recession, traditional labor unions feeling empowered and a bit desperate to increase membership, and independent internal unions being formed by employees.
It’s a lot to balance all at once. It may seem like unionizing is inevitable as Starbucks employees continue to demonstrate union formation one store at a time, and numerous union organizing campaigns and elections are taking place in large and small companies. Reading the news, you would think that all employees are ready to unionize, and all companies are predestined to become unionized companies. Yet, there are recent union avoidance efforts that have worked quite well, and they offer guidance on how to prevent union organizing by creating an environment where unions simply aren’t needed.
The labor shortages have developed for a variety of reasons that include the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, difficulties attracting younger workers to skilled jobs in some industries like manufacturing and tech, and the need for workers to hold jobs that have a purpose. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCoC) explains, 120,000 businesses closed during the pandemic, and 30 million U.S. workers were unemployed. Job openings began appearing as the pandemic ran out, but in the meantime, millions of people left the labor force. As of July 2022, 3.4 million fewer workers were in the labor force compared to February 2020.
The USCoC surveyed the unemployed workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic to learn what is keeping them from returning to the workforce. Except for retirees, the reasons are some of the same reasons that people who are employed give for considering unionization or for voting to join a union. The survey found the unemployed were concerned about the following:
The labor shortages are also due to the early retirement of three million people (baby boomers). Childcare was proven to be of particular interest to working women.
Labor relations are further complicated by worker activism which has been rising for several years. Employee activism rooted before the pandemic. But when times grew difficult during the pandemic, tired and stressed employees raised their voices in the workplace, and their feelings of empowerment grew. Walmart workers protested the sale of guns; Wayfair employees walked off the job when they learned the company would furnish migrant detention centers, and Google employees protested the company’s contracts they believed violated corporate social responsibility. Employee activism is meant to create positive changes within an organization or society, but it’s behavior initiating union activity and will only grow stronger going forward.
In an interview, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz discusses the reasons for more election petitions filed with the NLRB in 2021. Bringing together the job market, activism, and worker attitudes, he says, “Clearly, tight labor markets play an important role. Workers, if they believe there are a lot of other jobs out there, are more willing to take a risk on forming a union, knowing that it doesn’t mean unemployment if their employer retaliates. When labor markets have been very tight, we tend to see more worker activism.”
There are numerous and continuous efforts to pinpoint the reasons for the labor shortage. One group of researchers assessed worker beliefs about their options and the external labor market. They came to the conclusion that “many workers mistakenly believe their current wage is representative of the external labor market,” and if they correctly recognized their options, the workers would not work at their current wages. One of the reasons labor unions focus on things like “living wage,” “pay transparency,” and “executive pay” is to create dissatisfaction in the workforce and increase awareness of opportunities concerning their pay. An opportunity is to join a union.
During the pandemic, many low-wage workers were called “essential,” making them aware of their true value to the organization. At the same time, labor union activity increased, and movements like Fight for $15 and a Union and its regional effort called Raise Up the South appeared. Employees across industries, but especially in retail and hospitality industries, realized they could push for higher pay and better working conditions. Sharon Block, a professor and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, says that work is not necessarily more dysfunctional now for employees than it has been in the past. What has changed is the “tight labor market of the last year-plus gives workers the upper hand to vocalize, even push back on, the unaccommodating ways work gets done.”
The demographic shift in the workforce is another factor. Workers who are joining unions are mostly younger employees, more aware of economics, and more interested in things like corporate social responsibility. Many are working in jobs they consider less than what they hoped for, but they also see them as opportunities to bring change to the employee-employer relationship. It’s like a modern-day version of the “hippie sit-ins” of the 60s and 70s to protest war and support tolerance. Idealism was turned into action, and it’s once again happening. This time though, employees have access to social media and digital communications and can rapidly organize.
Starbucks and Amazon, both of which hire younger employees with an average age between 20-30 years, are in the news almost daily with stories about employees trying to unionize the coffee shops and warehouses/distribution centers. The stories of union wins and attempts to unionize are headlines because of the pro-union environment that employers and unions are operating in. From NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo working to overturn decades of precedence in favor of labor unions to a federal government publicly praising unions to aggressive labor union tactics to employees forming their own independent unions that aren’t affiliated with traditional labor unions like the AFL-CIO and AFL, there is fertile ground for unionizing.
When you review the National Labor Relations Board election results, one of the glaring facts is that many of the organizing wins are at smaller businesses. It’s easier to run a union organizing campaign at a small Starbucks store with a few dozen employees than it is to run one at Amazon with hundreds. Generally, per Tefere Gebre, who is the prior executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, labor unions are reluctant to spend a lot of money to pursue unionizing small groups of employees, so employees are forming their independent unions. Starbucks Workers United is a different case. Affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, the SEIU believes the small victories inspire others which is why there is a growing trend of unionizing Starbucks.
Yet, even in this environment, not all union elections are “yes” votes. Some employees either vote against joining a union, choose to vote for decertification or prevent attempts by coworkers who want to start union organizing. Sometimes, labor leaders halt an election as they did at the Amazon ONT8 facility on Staten Island. Following are a few examples of large and small workplaces that kept unions out and the basic needs of the employees.
Every company of every size in every industry is vulnerable to unionizing and should be taking steps to prevent union organizing by developing positive personal relations all the time, but the effort takes on urgency in the continuing labor shortage. Even in emerging industries like the green industry and advanced technology industries such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
There are three ways employers can identify how to stay ahead of union organizing. The first is to develop positive employee relations and strong employee engagement. It’s important to not make assumptions about the workplace culture or employee-management relations.
Second, you should review why employees don’t vote for a union in actual elections or choose to decertify a union. Third, look at the major employee issues when they do vote for a union because they believe the union can resolve the issues they have with their employer. The reality is these three approaches converge. For example, employees vote for a union because they want an employee voice, and employees vote down a union because they believe they have a workplace voice and positive employee relations with management. While it takes 30 percent of employees in a bargaining unit to file a petition for a union election, many union organizing campaigns are started by disgruntled or actively disengaged employees who convince coworkers to sign a union authorization card and raise emotions to a fever pitch to promote voting yes.
The words of some of the employees who are or were involved in union organizing campaigns can give you a clear direction on current employee attitudes towards work and their needs. Then look inward at your own organization, identify the needs that are likely to exist or you can anticipate, and address them to prevent union organizing.
Employee Lonnie Konikoff said, “We’re just human beings that want to have a better working environment for us, as well as our fellow workers, and to be compensated fairly.” The article mentions the workers cited company changes that include “the closure of 38 offices in California, cutting the research and development department, changing sales metrics and disciplinary policies, insufficient training of new hires, inadequate equipment, and technology, as well as not providing reimbursement for workers who had to work from home and purchase their own equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.”
As mentioned earlier, Amazon employees at the Albany warehouse voted overwhelmingly not to join the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Worker Dionte Whitehead said, “If anything, I’m concerned a union will take money out of my paycheck.” Some workers didn’t vote for the union because, as a worker, Tyrese Caldwell said, “They’re a fresh union, and they’re trying to tackle something as big as Amazon.” Another worker, Michael Oakes, agreed. “If it were an established union, not the ALU, I might be behind it.” The employees who did vote for the union wanted a revised unpaid time off policy and higher pay. The ALU says workers are unionizing because they want a seat at the table, better benefits and pay, and improved working conditions.
Most employers, of course, had a well-devised strategy to respond to the signs of union organizing or to the declared union organizing campaign. They did things like:
One common claim among the labor unions and the employees who voted for unionization and didn’t win is that employers intimidated, coerced, and threatened the workers to scare them into voting “no.” You can count on one or more Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges being filed with the National Labor Relations Board at some point. Employers have the right to object to unionizing, and normal efforts are portrayed as violating employee rights. However, the pro-union NLRB is no longer objective and usually supports the union and employee claims.
Preventing union organizing is the ideal strategy because, as the previous examples demonstrate, most union organizing campaigns are negative. Win or lose, employers must address the aftermath of the workforce division, which includes damaged relationships and lowered employee morale. Following are some of the lessons learned from union avoidance strategies that worked.
The Stone Creek Coffee Company (mentioned earlier) owner was shocked when the union sent him a letter that his workforce was organizing. He thought they had good employee-management relationships and that his employees believed they had a strong voice. He immediately began holding workshops to listen to his employees and discovered his employees felt unseen and unheard. There were not enough communication paths for workers to share their perspectives and ideas. The owner formed an employee council, holds regular company-wide meetings, and has someone report on the follow-up being done on feedback collected.
It has never been more important for your organization to do everything necessary to prevent union organizing in the pro-union environment. The goal of the NLRB and the Biden administration is to make it as easy and quick as possible to unionize a workplace. For example, NLRB GC Abruzzo wants to end union elections and force employers to accept a union by authorization cards only. This has severe implications because only 30 percent of employees could force a union on a majority of employees. Couple the high-level push for unionization with employee activism and a labor shortage, and you can expect many union organizing campaigns. You can avoid being one of the management teams that looks back and wishes your leaders had taken the right steps to engage employees.
Fortunately, everyone can learn from the events that have already taken place. Work with our team of experts at IRI Consultants to identify and address your specific union vulnerabilities and the best strategies to improve positive employee relations. You get access to experts who have worked in a variety of industries and understand the unique challenges in each.
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.