A Breakdown of Employee Rights During Union Organizing

Juan is a supervisor who is unhappy about a union organizing campaign that he learned is in the early stages. It has already created conflict between pro and anti-union employees and lowered productivity. He isn’t certain of what employee rights during union organizing times entail. One day, an employee asks to speak to him. She doesn’t support the union but signed a union authorization card before she knew as much as she does now. She’s afraid the union organizers or coworkers will find ways to retaliate; if they learn, she will not vote for the union should an election occur. 

Is there anything Juan can say or do to help the employee protect her rights to oppose organizing? UnionProof says “yes” with the caveat that all leadership statements and behaviors must adhere to the law to avoid perceived interference with employee rights to join or not join a union. 

Scenario 1:

As a supervisor, he knows that he has no control over what his employees are paid. Juan tells the employee he can’t help her in this situation. However, he explains that she can let her coworkers know they will all get a raise if they keep the union out.

Scenario 2:

Juan tells the employee she has the legal right to get her union authorization card back. Following the employee handbook procedures, she should report any workplace harassment she experiences for any reason, including her union stance.

During union organizing, it’s easy for employers to feel like they’re in constant danger of saying or doing something wrong, so they are often reluctant to even discuss employees’ legal rights to oppose organizing. Instead, they focus on exercising their rights as an employer. 

What if the two sets of rights were blended into a strategy focused on stopping the union from succeeding? It is a strategy in which managers exercise their rights per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the National Labor Relations Board guidance and decisions. At the same time, helping employees understand and exercise their right to oppose the union.

The following are some of the ways managers can help employees who don’t want a union by sharing empowering information. 

Right to Revoke Union Authorization Card Signature

Employees do have the right to revoke their signature on a union authorization card or petition. Unfortunately, people are afraid of the union or coworkers and don’t want to publicly revoke their signature. Too many employees believe that signing a union authorization card means they have to vote for the union. This is simply not true.

Remind employees they don’t have to vote for the union at the time of the election. This remains true even if they signed an authorization card. They also need to understand their vote of “no,” which has more weight than abstaining. The reason is a matter of mathematics. Election results are calculated using the total number of people who vote. They aren’t based on the total number of people in the bargaining unit eligible to vote.

Even better, as soon as you discover union activity, tell employees to protect their signature. If enough signatures are collected, the union can quickly file a petition for an election. 

Right to Hear Common Knowledge about the Particular Union

Each union has a modus operandi consisting of two major elements. One is the pressure placed on employees during organizing. The second is how the union behaves once voted in. They have strategies and tactics they typically use in both situations that employees are probably not fully aware of. Employers have a right to share common knowledge, and employees have a right to hear it even though the union objects. 

Employees not aware of organizing tactics and their purpose are more likely to get caught up in the union net. Using the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute Training Handbook for learning how to organize as an example, the “Organize” section talks about the organizer’s emphasis on the importance of understanding the steps of the organizing plan and learn to inoculate effectively and agitate around issues and the need for action. The organizer is to paint “a picture of how a worker comes together with his/her coworkers to address the most important problem he/she identified”. The organizers are taught that they must get a worker to publicly commit by a “vote yes petition,” or they can’t count on the worker voting for a union, especially if there is a “boss fight.” 

The intense pressure placed on employees is enormous and stressful. It only gets worse once the union activists recruit and develop workplace leaders for mobilizing the bargaining unit. Unions agitate, persist, and harass. Their manuals are full of fighting words. It’s difficult for some employees to resist, so arming them with knowledge about the union is crucial. 

Unions Have An Agenda

Once a union is voted in, there is a different agenda. UnionProof has a wealth of information on all the national unions and many of the local unions, and can easily research any other union. Employers should use this kind of research to identify the facts, i.e., number of protests and strikes, criminal charges brought against union officers, plants that had to be shut down due to unionizing, changes in wage rates after unionizing, and so on. Was the union decertified or presented with a decertification petition at any business because employees were unhappy with their representation? 

Managers or supervisors who directly experience working with unions can share those personal experiences too but stick to the facts. You can’t lie and exaggerate, but you can share eyewitness accounts. This helps employees process information coming from the union and helps employees resistant to organizing to continue resisting by understanding the occurring manipulation. 

Right to Hear the Positives

You can share the positive aspects of working for the company, including a supportive culture (despite union claims otherwise.) It’s important to not present any of the advantages and benefits of working for the organization as being at risk should employees choose to join a union. That is considered a threat. However, by telling employees the good aspects of your organization to overcome union negativity, you also give employees who don’t want to join a union the ability to respond with facts when they are pressured. Positives include, but are not limited to:

  • Competitive compensation 
  • Current benefits
  • Training opportunities (many companies now have online training modules that employees can access at any time)
  • How wages and benefits compare with other companies in the area and the industry
  • Working conditions, i.e., safety, scheduling, etc.
  • Open-door management policy 

Right to Talk About the Workplace and Opposition to Unions

Employees can pretty much do what they want to oppose unions. They just may not know they can. They can run ads or create their website or use social media to explain unions’ downside from their perspective. Employees can demonstrate against unions or hand out anti-union material, sometimes at work, depending on past company policies on handouts. They can hold their own meetings with coworkers to discuss staying union-free.

Employees can push back

Amazon has been a target of unions for years and so far has been successful at deflecting organizing efforts. An article on CNBC discussed how Amazon has fought back against increasing attempts of some employees to unionize. One of the interesting points shared is that a group of Amazon employees called Fulfillment Center Ambassadors regularly tweet, with Amazon’s permission, on Twitter about how much they enjoy working at Amazon. The tweets are often in response to threads that are mostly about how awful Amazon workers are treated. 

Let Employees Who Oppose Unions Talk

The Ambassadors sometimes tweet negative statements about unions, such as “Union protection makes it hard for employers to discipline, terminate or promote.” Despite the criticisms they get, as expected on social media, the Ambassadors persist in posting positive comments, like one posted in March 2020 that said, “FC Ambassadors are entry-level Fulfillment Center workers who signed up for a secondary role. I don’t feel like striking right now would be productive. People are relying on Amazon for things they need. And what would I be striking for? The pay and benefits here are decent.” 

Let your employees who want to oppose unions do the talking. One successful approach is to post videos on a union-free website or company website. Employees talk about their work, working conditions, the company in general, appreciation for the benefits provided, and why they believe a union is unnecessary.

You can also hold meetings and let employees talk to the group. Of course, this approach also has the risk of pro-union employees talking. However, employers are allowed to answer direct questions posed by employees, so they can respond to some of the employee concerns. 

Right to Get the Facts About a Union Workplace

Unions will tell employees they will have more voice in the workplace. The reality is they will have less in many ways. For example, if they elect a union, management will be required to deal with the union, instead of directly with employees, about benefits, wages, schedules, promotions, and working conditions. You can tell them you want to keep dealing directly with employees on such matters, and it’s their choice. 

You can also tell employees the disadvantages of unionizing as long as you stick to the facts. The disadvantages include paying monthly dues, and in some cases, an initiation fee, and having no say in how the union spends their dues.

Employee Rights as Union Members

Union members also are subject to several membership duties and obligations that limit their freedoms, besides the ability to personally deal with issues like wages and working conditions. They are stated in the local union by-laws. For example, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1776 by-laws state a member cannot cross or work behind a UFCW sanctioned picket line, even if it’s another union’s picket line. The local union has the “exclusive authority to “submit grievances to arbitration, withdraw grievances, settle and compromise grievances, and decline to invoke the grievance procedures of the collective bargaining contract.” 

According to the National Right to Work organization, most employees don’t realize they are bound by union rules and regulations in the union constitution and by-laws. They also don’t know that unions can issue monetary fines against employees who don’t adhere to all the rules, and the union can sue the employee in state court to collect the fines. Cross a picket line to keep getting paid, and the person is likely to face a fine.

Employees have the right to consult with organizations like the National Right to Work Foundation, labor attorneys, or labor relations professionals for advice. 

Right to Refuse Union Pressure Tactics

Unions will hold meetings in coworker homes, and many times coworkers are friends. Meetings in homes are desirable because they can include family members. Some employees are caught between honoring a friend’s request to attend a meeting in a personal environment like a living room and feeling pressured by the union to use their time to be solicited for union membership. 

You can remind employees they have no legal obligation to discuss unions or attend union organizing meetings. That includes meetings held in the workplace that meet the requirement they do not interfere with personal work performance or the work performed by others. It also includes meetings held in union halls, bars and restaurants, and employee homes. 

Unions know that peer pressure is on their side, but it can work both ways. Employees who don’t want to unionize can hold meetings to discuss the reasons why they don’t believe unions are the answer. 

Employees have the right to just say “no” and tell union organizers to leave them alone.

Right to Ask Managers and Supervisors Questions about Unions

You can’t directly ask employees their thoughts on unions or how they plan to vote should a union election occur. Employees have the right to ask their managers and supervisors questions or discuss any interest or concern topic. It’s one reason having a FAQ page webpage for employees is important. Employees will hear a lot of negative statements and misinformation about their employer, creating doubts in people’s minds. Unions are notorious for lying about employers, and thoughtful employees will want to investigate to learn the truth.

This is a major reason the UnionProof professionals consistently and frequently encourage employers to develop and practice an open-door policy, even if there is no union activity at the moment. Employees who are comfortable approaching their managers with questions about workplace policies and procedures before union organizing begins are more likely to feel free to ask questions during the union organizing campaign. 

As you do what you can legally to ensure employees understand their rights to oppose unionization, be sure to remember the T.I.P.S. and F.O.E. rules to keep the company from committing labor violations. The UnionProof Push Back video series explains in a great deal how supervisors can lawfully support the employee’s right to not join a union. 

Choosing “No”

Though you cannot ask an employee if he or she opposes a union, and you can’t interfere with their NLRA protected rights, you can certainly give your employees the information they need to fully exercise their rights. A union cannot force someone to vote for unionization, though they will try. You can be instrumental in helping employees resist the typical harassment they are likely to experience. Ensure you enforce your anti-harassment policy, administer Human Resources policies fairly and equitably, and counter any lies the unions tell. When the NLRA talks about union rights, it’s mostly from the perspective of protecting the employees’ right to organize, but employees have the right to form, join or assist a union…or choose not to.

Union organizing is a complex event. It requires well-trained leaders who can guide the organization through the process without breaking the law. UnionProof and A Better Leader offer all the resources needed to defend your organization against unions and to help employees protect their right to say, “No union needed.”

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and the 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.

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