How Does a Union Affect Employees and the Workplace?

Learning about labor unions and organizing campaigns is half the learning curve. The other half concerns how unions affect employees and the workplace, should your employees choose to go through a union organizing campaign and vote to unionize. The first thing to note is that staying union-free takes an all-out effort to build the right organizational culture, develop positive employee relations and develop labor law smart leadership skills.

Understanding how unions affect employees is the foundation of developing a strategy to stay union-free. With that in mind, the following are 12 critical impacts unions have on the workplace in general, employees and leadership.

How Unions Affect the Workplace?

Damages Trust Between Management and Employees  

union organizing campaign damages trust between some or all employees and their managers and supervisors. The foundation of the organizing campaign is negativity and unhappiness. The union convinces some of your employees they aren't treated fairly in some manner, i.e., wages, benefits, work schedules, promotions, job security, broken employer promises, lack of employee voice, etc. Unions today frequently encourage employees to embrace other issues for the common good, like whether your company has a poor environmental footprint, causes social harm, or contracts with government agencies they believe do harm, like the defense department.   

During the union organizing campaign, unions also make promises to employees. The union frequently cannot meet many of these promises, but the employer may take the blame. For example, the union says vote "yes," and you're guaranteed to earn more. However, there are no guarantee contract negotiations will lead to higher wages. Employees who believe the union lies are likely to see the employer as the obstacle.   

Increases Opportunities for Conflicts that Become HR & Leader Issues  

union changes leadership dynamics in many ways. Your leaders, including Human Resources professionals, must spend more time dealing with issues like:  

  • Conflicts between employees in a bargaining unit and those in a non-bargaining unit 
  • Responding to employee grievances that the union encourages them to file, and NLRB Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) claims
  • Responding to union misinformation or outright lies 
  • Conflicts between employees because promotions are based on seniority rather than performance per the union contract 

These are just some of the issues that are union-driven. Many activities are taken for granted as acceptable when not unionized can quickly become major issues with unions. For example, you may encourage employees to cross-train, which could become a problem due to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Typical leadership actions will be challenged, such as asking an employee to fill in for a worker on sick leave or adding even a small job responsibility.   

unions affect employees

Restricts Eligibility of Job Candidates  

From an economic perspective, unions maintain much of their power by restricting the labor supply. For example, once your workplace is unionized, only job candidates willing to join a union are eligible for hiring in a bargaining unit position. This may or may not mean a restriction in your ability to hire the best person for the job.

Forces Changes in the Organizational Structure and Workforce  

When pro-union people talk about how unions affect employees, they inevitably talk about the higher wages that union members earn. However, looking at the statistics without understanding all the factors can lead to erroneous conclusions. Statistics are meant to look objective, but what is the real effect of unions on wages 

When you look at how unions affect a workplace and its wages and benefits, you have to consider the fact that you, like most employers, will make adaptive changes to the workforce. You may need to change the composition of jobs, restructure lines of authority, offer early retirement to older workers to drive down payroll costs, and so on. The older workers are likely your most experienced employees too. Their loss before they have time to transfer knowledge to younger workers is another way unions affect the workplace negatively.  

Unions Affect Employee Engagement 

High employee engagement is more difficult to maintain because the union becomes a third party in employee relations management. Research indicates the union's promotion of "us vs. them" diminishes the union employee's sense of connection to a company. Employee engagement is a complex topic because so much influences it, including leadership skills, and unions complicate the engagement process.  

Hurts the Company Culture 

Unions can hurt your company culture. How unions affect the workplace when talking about the company culture is different from company to company. The union may create an atmosphere of distrust as a minimum or a toxic environment when union and non-union employees work against each other or union employees develop an adversarial perspective concerning management. Your workplace culture may become less collaborative, less innovative, and more adversarial. 

More Leadership Focus Spent on Overcoming Union Negativity 

To show employees that they don't need a union, you must show you care about the things important to your employees. Unions succeed by consistently delivering negative messages about an employer, even after they win an election. The focus shifts very little. Before and during the union organizing campaign, the union convinces employees your management doesn't care about them. After the election, the union focuses on keeping employees dissatisfied with the workplace to some degree, so they are not decertified at the end of a contract period.   

Keeping employees dissatisfied with management is a way for unions to prove their usefulness to employees in dealing with workplace issues. Relationships between employees and leadership are harmed, and how can they not be in the face of so much negative emotion? The leadership challenge is overcoming the union negativity by taking a holistic approach to developing positive employee relations. Your leaders must build a "whole person workplace." 

Unions Affect Workplace Costs to Respond to a Union Organizing Campaign

There is a measurable cost of unionization associated with a union organizing campaign. Research has found a single union organizing campaign can cost from $400,000 to $2,000,000, depending on the size of the company. It's difficult to say an exact cost, but your company will need to invest in an employee-facing website on unions, printed materials, labor law attorneys, leadership traininga leadership-facing website for communication and information purposes, and many other resources known to help organizations avoid unionization. 

Unions Increase Operational Expenses 

A discussion on how unions affect the workplace must address how unions increase operational expenses and affect employees. Often it will affect employees in ways they may not think about unless you explain the connection. The cost of unionization is high. You'll need to pay labor law attorneys, incur the expense of contract negotiations, and deal with numerous Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs) claims. Additionally, you'll have to manage more formal grievances and frequently negotiate with the union over any items that impact employees and may or may not be covered in the collective bargaining agreement 

These expenses are in addition to a possible negotiated increase in employee wages and benefits and additional Human Resources staff needed to manage the union contract requirements. Every dollar that goes towards these expenses is a dollar that cannot be used to deliver additional benefits and services to employees or to grow your business. 

unions affect workplace

Strikes and Protests More Likely 

A key issue concerning how unions affect employees and the workplace is strikes, walkouts, protests, and slowdowns. Strikes and protests are likely at some point if there is a disagreement between the union and the employer. Strikes and protests are on the rise again, and no one wins. This has an impact on both employees and the business.  

The GM strike in 2019 was a precursor of what was coming, and a reminder of the damage strikes do to people. In the first five days of October 2021, there were ten strikes ongoing. Strikes are getting so popular in the healthcare industry that there are companies like Health Source Global that offer nurse strike staffing. The St. Vincent Hospital strike in Massachusetts began an open-ended strike on March 8, 2021, which is still ongoing in October 2021.  

The Warrior Met Coal mine strike began April 1, 2021, and on October 29, 2021, a judge ordered the coal miners to stop picketing because of increasing violence. These are the kind of ways you can expect a union to affect the workforce. Strikes are costly, disruptive, and hurtful to all involved. 

Unions Make it More Difficult to Manage Productivity  

Do your employees know the history of unions? This history explains many reasons how unions affect employees. For example, it's extremely difficult to lay off or fire even an incompetent or non-productive union worker except under dire circumstances and only with an excessive amount of invested time and documentation. Even then, chances are a ULP claim is filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In the meantime, coworkers are forced to work with the non-productive person, often unintentionally taking on the person's work so a department can meet goals. This can go full circle in that any coworkers picking up an employee's slack can then go to the union and claim underpayment for work responsibilities. 

Unions Change Leadership Communication Requirements  

Communication between your managers and supervisors, and employees must change too when unions are involved. Of course, communication should always be respectful, whether or not a union is involved, but now your leaders must get quality updated training on topics like the TIPS and FOE rules addressing what can legally be said to employees; employee rightsemployer rights; the NLRA and more.  

Developing a Culture Where Unions Just Aren't Necessary

Staying union-free might seem much more difficult in the current environment, but it's also more important as the government and the NLRB continue their push to grow union influence and membership. The Proactive Era is here, so the best strategy is to take the holistic approach to develop positive employee relations mentioned earlier.  

With this approach to becoming an employer of choice by offering a positive employee experience, employees don't want to unionize. There is no need to! That doesn't mean you don't talk to your employees about how unions affect the workplace. Quite the opposite; it's important to talk to your employees about unions to ensure they have sound information for decision-making. It's essential that they are informed and educated and know the ramifications that a union organizing their workplace means for them.  

Projections, along with IRI, offers Laborwise Leadership training, which is online training for your leaders on topics like labor relations, union proofing, online union organizing, and employee engagement. Pair this training with leadership development in people skills, and you can create a positive culture and positive employee relations that make unions unnecessary.  

About the Author Walter Orechwa

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.