Effective Strategies Amidst Labor Shortages and Changing Workplace Attitudes

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. 

Labor Shortages, Employee Attitudes, and Labor Unions

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. 

Where Are the Employees?

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: 

  • · Safety, including COVID-19 lingering at work
  • · Low pay
  • · Needing to focus on learning new skills
  • · Lack of childcare

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. 

Why is Employee Activism Growing?

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.” 

How is Growing Awareness of the Job Market Impacting the Labor Shortage?

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.” 

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What Made the Younger Workforce Feel Empowered to Bring Change?

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. 

Remember: Not All Union Organizing Campaigns Win

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. 

  • Amazon – Amazon workers at the LDJ5 warehouse on Staten Island voted against joining the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in May 2022. The vote was 618 against and 380 for the union. The workers for unionizing claimed the workplace culture was toxic, and employees needed more job security and better pay.
  • Amazon – Amazon workers at the ALB1 warehouse in the Albany area voted to not join the independent Amazon Labor Union in October 2022. It wasn’t a close vote either, at 406 against and 206 for the union. The union supporters wanted higher wages, safer working conditions, and a louder workplace voice. Amazon had recently increased the minimum pay to $17 an hour and invested in new safety technologies and other measures, including expanding its health-and-safety team.
  • Starbucks - Though there is a wave of Starbucks stores that have unionized or are seeking a union election, there are also employees that chose not to join Starbucks Workers United. For example, in April 2022, employees at the Springfield, Virginia, Starbucks store voted 10 to 8 against unionizing. The union campaign started during the pandemic when some workers were concerned about safety. The stress grew as coworkers called in sick and stores were understaffed. The organizers wanted more pay, schedule consistency, the employer to make up low tips, and above all, to be heard and have a say in how the stores are run.
  • Starbucks – Workers at a Minneapolis Starbucks store voted against the union despite three other Starbucks stores in the state voting for the union. The vote was 5 to 6 for, and 8 abstained. The employees at all the Starbucks stores involved in unionizing express the same needs for more pay, schedule consistency, etc. Ironically, Starbucks is known for its generous benefits, including paid college tuition and parental leave. 
  • Burlington Gold Bond Building Products – In October 2022, employees at Burlington Gold Bond Building Products decisively voted out the United Steelworkers union, with 70 percent voting to oust the union. The reason employees gave for decertifying the union was they were paying dues to the union and getting nothing in return. National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix said, “USW officials openly admit that their modus operandi is to subordinate employee rights and interests to maintain union power, so we’re glad that Mr. Cobourn and his coworkers were able to exercise their right to kick such union officials out of their workplace.”  
  • Stone Creek Coffee - Starbucks was not the first group of baristas to consider unionizing. The employees at Stone Creek Coffee held a union election and voted 52 to 38 against unionizing. They had worked with the Teamsters Local 344. The employees wanted higher pay, improved scheduling plans, and the ability to have input into decision-making (employee voice).
  • Walmart – Walmart is not unionized, and it frustrates the labor unions. The largest retailer in the country employs more than 1.7 million workers in the United States. The company has developed a successful plan that explains the company’s view of unions at hiring and has made critical changes to its Human Resources policies to support employee needs, like improving the sick pay policy, offering no-cost college tuition, flexible paid time off and matching 401(k) contributions.
  • Dollar General – Workers at the Dollar General in Barkhamsted, Connecticut, voted not to form a union. The issues were a desire for more job security and a policy of “just cause” in which employees wouldn’t get fired without a good reason.

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. 

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The Words of Employees Speaking About Unionizing

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. 

  • For 15 years, Natalie Bauer has worked in the coffee and service industry. She currently works at Colectivo Coffee. She says, “I think so many service industry jobs, in general, abuse the idea of someone’s time. You’re being overworked and perpetually underpaid.”
  • College student Carson Kindred recently wrote an opinion piece for The Emory Wheel titled, Unions are Back: How workers are succeeding despite incredible hurdles. Kindred spent the summer working at a high-end donut shop and writes, “As college students, we often work service jobs as a means to an end, a stopping point on the road to “better” things, not a destination. Yet this is not true for most workers — they cannot merely sweep their exploitation under the rug because they will only endure it for a summer. Workplace organizing must be recognized as the empowering, democratic achievement it is, not as workers complaining when they could simply get a better job — a harmful consequence of meritocratic thinking which forces us to see success as individually determined.”
  • Geico employees in Amherst, New York, started a union organizing campaign. The office of the auto insurance company has 2,500 workers, and they turned to unionizing because they believe working conditions have deteriorated over the past two years. Geico United is an employee-led independent labor union.

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:

  • Sending daily messages to employees about the benefits of working for the company and the disadvantages of unions
  • Reinforcing the message that there is no need for a third party when employees and management can work through issues together
  • Posting signs in the workplace reminding employees they are appreciated
  • Maintaining a dedicated website that kept employees updated on union organizing campaign activities
  • Holding mandatory meetings to explain the employer’s perspective on unions
  • Reminding employees they have rights that include not signing union authorization cards and not voting for unionization
  • Agree to specifically and mutually address employee issues
  • File one or more Unfair Labor Practice charges when the union violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
  • Contest the vote when employees vote for a union

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.

Lessons Learned During the Worker Shortage and Changed Employee Attitudes

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.

  • Employ the services of a labor relations consulting firm that has experience in union avoidance
  • Be clear about the company mission and purpose to remind employees their work effort is fully appreciated and key to organizational success
  • Continue building a positive organizational culture but leave nothing to chance by checking and rechecking via employee engagement surveys and other forms of communication
  • Ensure your organization offers competitive pay and explain how it’s competitive to employees
  • Review all safety policies and practices and respond to specific employee complaints
  • Ask employees how they believe a stronger employee voice can be developed and then follow up with a two-way internal communications system that empowers employees; maintain an open-door policy
  • Be flexible in responding to ever-changing work environments and don’t automatically take a hard stance on issues like flexible schedules, remote work, etc. For example, Amazon changed a policy per employee request to allow employees to keep their cell phones with them while working so they can stay in touch with family
  • Embrace employee activism as a potential reputation builder by utilizing internal resources like Employee Resource Groups as the voices of employees, i.e., if an ERG believes the organization violates a social responsibility, then follow up and respond appropriately
  • Develop a new perspective concerning low-wage workers, many of whom hold jobs as their main source of income and thus want to be treated like higher-wage workers who they believe get more respect and voice
  • Recognize that younger workers have more idealistic attitudes, and the attitudes combined with feelings of empowerment are making them activists
  • Stay on top of what employees are thinking via employee engagement surveys, meetings, and conversations, which also strengthen employee voice
  • Invest the appropriate level of resources in your workforce for materials, tools, employee training, leadership development, etc. (While most companies can’t spend nearly as much as Amazon on safety, the fact it did spend $300 million on safety projects in 2021 was used as evidence a union is not necessary.)
  • Invest in workplace assessments, like the union vulnerability assessment and communication assessment, and don’t rely on what you think you understand about employees
  • Leverage the factual negatives about unions and give employees who had poor experiences with unions in the past opportunities to share their concerns with the workforce
  • Hold multiple mandatory meetings to explain the organization’s perspective on unions and the specific reasons a union is not necessary
  • Research the typical employee complaints in your industry, i.e., healthcare workers normally attempt to unionize around issues like safety and PPE, pay, work schedules, and staffing levels

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.

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The Time to Act is Now to Avoid Unionization

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.

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

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.

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