Storytelling in Labor Relations: Why it’s Critical to the Current Environment

In the business environment, it's essential to be proactive with an effective communication strategy. If you don't tell your organization's story as a strategy for corporate reputation management, someone else will. In the labor relations area, that means it will likely be a union, activist, press member, or disengaged employee. Storytelling in labor relations serves multiple purposes, including protecting a brand reputation, enhancing talent acquisition, and creating an environment where unions are simply unnecessary in your workplace. 

Donald Miller at Storybrand is a speaker, marketing expert, creator of the Storybrand Framework, and author of the book Building a "StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message and Grow Your Business." He writes, "So what's your message? Can you say it easily? Is it simple, relevant, and repeatable? Can your entire team repeat your company's message in such a way that it is compelling? Have new hires been given talking points they can use to describe what the company offers and why every potential customer should buy it?"   

What does this have to do with labor relations? Miller writes, "All engagement rises and falls on the employee proposition" and "Where there's no story, there's no engagement." An organization without a consistent story has more difficulty recruiting and retaining talent, developing employee engagement, and controlling the internal and external narrative about the organization. Corporate reputation management is crucial to successful talent management in every way.

labor relations in health care

Storytelling in Labor Relations: The National Landscape 

Businesses who achieve high employee engagement are less likely to be unionized. But employees are bombarded by external forces today that can negatively affect corporate reputation and take control of the workforce and public narrative about your corporate brand. The external forces impacting all industries include:  

  1. Union Confidence and Public Support – A September 2021 Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. Younger workers, in particular, are overwhelmingly supportive of labor unions, with 77 percent of people ages 18-34 in favor of unions. 
  2. The Cost of Unionization – Employers understand the full cost of unionization to the organization and employees, but employees tend to look at union dues as the only cost. They don't recognize the challenges of inflexible work rules, the potential for company financial stress that could impact their jobs or the possibility of lost wages due to strikes, walkouts, and protests
  3. Talent Acquisition / Recruitment Pressure – Employers are dealing with a labor shortage which in turn has empowered employees. The Great Resignation continues to this day, with 4.4 million people quitting their jobs in April 2022, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job openings outnumber job seekers by 2-to-1, enabling employees to find new jobs with relative ease. 
  4. Technology – The rapid pace of technology changes has impacted job requirements and increased the need for employee reskilling and upskilling. The adoption of new technologies is often a stressor on employees as they learn to use new tools.
  5. Virtual & DIY Organizing – In many cases, workers are organizing without the help of traditional labor unions. They are creating websites for virtual organizing and using social media and apps to organize employees, creating independent workers' unions like Starbucks Workers United and the Amazon Labor Union. Salts work internally to neutralize the "union is a third-party" message. 
  6. Legislative & Regulatory Efforts – Though the PRO Act is not likely to pass, there are strong legislative and regulatory changes being made across the nation that are making it much easier for unions to organize employees. The efforts are supported by a pro-union Biden administration. 
  7. Minority Unions – The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is supporting the formation of minority unions by expanding protections of the National Labor Relations Act concerning protected concerted activity. Minority unions aren't traditional unions that go through the formal organizing process. They don't have the support of a majority of bargaining unit employees. Minority unions are groups of employees and contractors who advocate for worker rights and social justice. Google's Alphabet Workers Union is a good example. There is no formal union election, no NLRB proceeding, and no legal requirement for the employer to recognize the minority union.  
  8. Corporate Campaigns – Corporate campaigns are attacks on a business by pressuring stakeholders, including vendors, customers, and community members. The corporate campaign can include legal action, economic pressures, disruptions to operations, and even legislative or regulatory action.

The administration in Washington, D.C. is poised to make significant changes to NLRB precedents. The White House Task Force on Worker Organizing & Empowerment proposes significant changes in labor relations areas to accomplish things like faster completion of the first collective bargaining contract, conversion of more independent contractors to worker status, increased disclosure of persuaders, and increased federal compliance monitoring.  

The National Labor Relations Board membership now has a Democratic majority. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has already issued numerous policy memos that will have or are having a significant impact on employers, including the following proposed changes: 

  • Limits on "captive audience" and "cornered employees" meetings 
  • Revival of the Joy Silk doctrine that requires an employer to have a good-faith doubt about a union's majority status in order to refuse a demand for union recognition; employers would be required to bargain with a union based on an alleged majority of signed authorization cards 
  • Increased scrutiny on handbook rules
  • Expansion of "Protected Concerted Activity" to included social issues as well as employee use of employer electronic systems 
  • Greater union access (contractors and/or union representatives) to employer property 
  • Consequential damages for the unlawful termination of an employee 

There has been a post-pandemic surge in organizing. 

  • There were 667 petitions for representation filed in the first quarter of 2022. This is a 79 percent increase compared to the fourth quarter of 2021. Employment labor attorney Jon Hyman with Wickers Herzer Panza calls it the "golden age of union organizing" because of the number of events creating a perfect storm for unionization.  
  • The NLRB received 1,174 petitions during the first half of the federal fiscal year from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022. There were 748 petitions filed in the first half of the fiscal year 2021. This is an increase of 57 percent.  
  • Per the NLRB, unfair labor practice charges increased 14 percent during the first six months of Fiscal Year 2022 compared to the first six months of the fiscal year 2021. ULPs can seriously damage an employer brand because employees often go public with their grievances.  
labor organizing in health care

Representation Elections in Health Care

Storytelling to Establish Your Employer Brand 

There are so many other voices talking about your brand. They include union organizers, social activists, former disgruntled employees, the media, community members, and regulatory bodies like OSHA and the Department of Labor. In the book "StoryBrand" mentioned earlier, author Donald Miller talks about the "curse of the Narrative Void," which he defines as vacant space that occurs inside an organization where there's no story to keep everyone aligned. Miller writes, "Just because you know the story doesn't mean your team does." Like a shared mission, shared purpose, and shared goals, your organization needs a shared story based on authentic employer branding. Storytelling in labor relations is focused on corporate reputation management that also supports positive employee relations by creating a shared story that attracts talent and unites employees in support of the brand.   

Labor unions are telling their story and creating stories about employers that are often untrue. Storytelling in labor relations is a strategy for taking charge of the narrative about your organization and leveraging the story to develop positive employee relations. It is a corporate reputation management strategy that can:  

  • Help maintain a direct connection with team members 
  • Improve retention 
  • Provide employee recognition 
  • Attract better and more talent to your organization 
  • Improve the employee experience 
  • Differentiate the business from its competitors 

You can create storytelling online. Begin by creating a people-focused website that tells the story of your organization and its people. There is a wonderful array of options to engage employees and the general public. They include employee interviews, articles, videos, podcasts, and links to existing content. One of the most powerful options is sharing compelling employee stories because employees willing to publicly support their employer are likely to be believed and are inspirational. You can also repurpose content and drive traffic to your employer brand website via social media.

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Six Storytelling Actions You Can Take Now 

To begin storytelling for labor relations, you need to identify the story you want to tell. That seems obvious, but it's important to create a premise that is powerful and enduring. Creating an environment with a strong culture, one where employees don't feel they have to turn to a union to have their voices heard, is not easy. Here are six actions you can consider today.  

  1. Critically assess your existing philosophy statement and positive employee relations strategy, looking for weaknesses and gaps.
  2. Evaluate stakeholder communication channels and listening systems. 
  3. Educate senior and middle managers on warning signs of potential union activity. 
  4. Conduct union vulnerability assessments (macro/micro focus). 
  5. Explore how you tell your story today and make revisions as necessary.
  6. Change your perspective and do not assume "your culture" is strong enough. 

Rising Above the Noise 

Storytelling in labor relations is a brand reputation management strategy designed to overcome the strong pro-union forces and voices at work today. Getting the story right and disseminating it as an engagement tool can be daunting. Our team of expert consultants can help your organization design and implement storytelling and develop leaders who understand how to communicate the story. It is a process of rising above the noise. Click here to learn more.

About the Author Nick Munday

Nick Munday has more than 15 years of human resources and labor relations experience, specializing in positive employee relations and communications strategies that help companies connect with team members.