Are You Missing These 10 Signs of Union Organizing Activity?

 Unions are very good at keeping the start of a union drive quiet, but today it's easier than ever before. Though it still happens, employers today are much less likely to come across union meeting notices or physical authorization cards. Unions have the ability to text, email, and connect with employees online to gain support for an organizing drive.  However, there are still early warning signs that can be spotted, as long as you know what to look for. The following are ten signs of union organizing that are easy to miss but important to recognize and address in order to create your union-proof culture.

1. Obvious Signs

Don't treat the obvious as inconsequential. For instance, an employee may show up wearing a union t-shirt, or as we mentioned, you may find a union flyer or authorization card in the employee break room. However, union organizers often tell employees to avoid anything that may attract management's attention, so you're unlikely to see such overt signs, especially early in a campaign. This is why it's important to learn to recognize more subtle indications.

2. Turnover Rate Change

A change in employee turnover rates can be a subtle indication of organizing. It may sound strange on the surface, but unions have an impact on employee perspectives. If the turnover rate goes up when there have been no changes in company policies, wages, or benefits, a union might be making promises concerning better working conditions. The reality is that a union campaign succeeds by encouraging employee dissatisfaction and making your team members believe they are not being treated well.

Union membership has social and economic costs. Union members must pay dues, risk loss of income due to strikes, experience a change in job security due to the institution of strict seniority rules, develop a more adversarial relationship with the employer and operate within a rigid bureaucratic work environment. Some employees will leave rather than deal with a union, so the turnover rate may rise.

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3. Change in the Language of Exit Interviews

Once again, unions depend on creating an environment of dissatisfaction. When the HR department notices a change in the tone of exit interviews and employees challenge them or become more hostile, it may be a sign a union is at work. Employees may also begin making negative statements, such as, “I’m leaving to escape an unpleasant environment." The unpleasantness felt could be due to the employee feeling pressure from coworkers to unionize.

4. Employee Language

Managers may notice a change in the language of employees because it becomes more formal and legal in nature. Employees may start using union words like "grievance," "arbitration," "job security," “employee rights,” “prevailing wage” and “unfair labor practices.” They may also start asking their immediate supervisor or manager questions around these topics, so be sure you have a system in place for your front-line managers to report a change in employee behavior that could be an indication of organizing activity.

5. Employee Communication Behavior Changes

Unions succeed by driving a wedge between employees and management. Managers may notice employees who were previously friendly with them suddenly becoming less communicative or more difficult. The normally cooperative employee becomes uncooperative. Leaders who are effective at union avoidance know how to keep channels of communication open and are more likely to uncover the real issues.

6. New Employee Alliances

Managers may see new employee friendships or alliances develop when the union wants to unionize a workplace. The typical strategy involves getting some employees to serve as the volunteer organizing committee whose job it is to get other employees interested. People who normally didn't talk or spend any time together may now seem to have a lot to talk about. They are likely to hang out in areas they never would have been seen in before, so they can talk in private.

7. Social Media Language

When employees post or tweet on social media, and reference NLRA Section 7, it is likely they have been talking to a union. Section 7 has a specific language, such as “protected, concerted activity.” According to the National Labor Relations Board, concerted activity refers to an employee engaging “with or on the authority of other employees.” A single employee can initiate, coordinate and prepare for group activities that concern “employee interests as employees.”

8. Employee Phone Time

Employees who spend more time on their phones for no apparent work reason may be trying to keep up with what is going on with their coworkers concerning unionization. Unions often try to stay in contact with particular employees in order to provide encouragement and direction and to convince team members to recruit other employees.

9. Emotions Run High

Small groups of employees may gather in unusual places as emotions run high and everything seems urgent. The unions blatantly provide advice on the organization of a union while agitating employees with small group discussions on workplace issues that are presented in a negative manner. The union then builds an organizing committee of workplace leaders who are passionate about developing an issues-driven, emotionally charged agenda.

10. Employee Routines Change

There is just no way for people to get an organizing effort going without changing routines. It takes time and effort to organize, so employees may take lunches or breaks at different times than they used to or people who usually go out for lunch will suddenly begin eating lunch in the break room.

Subtle signs of unionization exist, and employers that want to stay union-proof must recognize them. Leadership training is critical because unions are experts at what they do and now have the NLRB supporting them through one case decision after another. Having a high level of employee engagement and a strong communication process in place are two important strategies for keeping a workplace union-free. Open channels of communication make it more likely your workplace is never unionized.

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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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