Union Vulnerability Assessment for All Companies

Every business leader should be asking: is my company vulnerable to union organizing? It's a common question for employers. Many union-free companies feel blindsided when they find evidence their employees are showing interest in unions, like a union authorization card left behind in the break room. The reality is: companies have external and internal vulnerabilities. By reading through this union vulnerability assessment, vulnerabilities can be identified and addressed in order for your organization to stay union-free.

Many, but not all, vulnerabilities are often under your control as a business leader. It's still essential to identify all of them that apply to your company and ensure you do everything possible to keep unions out. At UnionProof, we believe you can create an atmosphere where unions simply aren't necessary. We provide powerful communication tools and leadership training to help you become an employer of choice. We feel it is important to educate and inform leaders and business owners of the following eight common vulnerabilities.

Get started with these 8 key considerations in our union vulnerability assessment:

1. Vulnerability Varies By State

In real estate, the saying that it's all about "location, location, location" means a transaction is likely to take place when a property is in the right spot. The same is true for companies.

Some states are pro-union, regularly passing legislation that protects unions. This became obvious after the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that public employees cannot be forced to pay union fees. In response, multiple states passed laws that made it more difficult for non-union employees to end union fee payments. Though the court case concerned public employees, it strengthened the resolve of pro-union states to make it easier for unions to increase membership.

Essentially, right-to-work states allow employees to work in unionized workplaces without being required to join the union and pay dues. As of 2020, there are 27 states and Guam with right-to-work laws, meaning 23 states do not have such laws. Companies operating in non-right-to-work states have a higher risk of unionization. 

Operating in a highly unionized city is also a risk factor. The U.S. News extrapolated figures by university professors at Georgia State University and Trinity University to identify the ten most unionized cities in the U.S. Number 10 is Syracuse, New York, with a 23-percent membership rate, and number one is Colorado Springs, Colorado with a 37.7-percent membership rate. 

The more likely your employees will come in regular contact with union members, the more pressure they will feel. In pro-union states and cities, your workers are very likely bombarded with union literature and pressure from friends and family members who belong to unions. If employers have not addressed their internal vulnerabilities and educated employees on the benefits of staying union-free, their employees are much more likely to succumb and talk to local union representatives. 

2. Industries with Strong Unions

Some companies are more vulnerable to union organizing because of their industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unionization rate for industries. The top private-sector industries as of 2019 were:

  • Utilities (23.4%)
  • Transportation and warehousing (16.1%)
  • Telecommunications (14.1%)

Industries with the lowest unionization rates currently are even more important. These are the industries the unions are aggressively targeting because there are plenty of opportunities to find members. They employ a significant number of younger generation employees who increasingly express interest in organizing.

  • Finance (1.1 percent)
  • Insurance (1.4 percent)
  • Professional and technical services (1.4 percent)
  • Food/drinking establishments (1.4%)

It's important to keep in mind that "low-skilled" occupations are particularly vulnerable to unions. Right now, among the occupations with the lowest unionization rates are sales (or related), and food preparation/serving-related occupations.

What Sector Is Most Vulnerable to Organizing?

Some of the most powerful unions in the country are working to attract lower-paid service workers and professionals, younger generation employees, part-time and contracted workers in the sharing or gig economy, and occupations that have not been unionized in the past. Following is a sample list of large unions and the type of employees they are actively recruiting:

  • UNITE HERE – healthcare and accommodation employees
  • Transport Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO) or International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) - transportation and warehousing employees
  • United Auto Workers (UAW) - Auto, aerospace, agricultural implement manufacturing employees

Having a voice is empowering for any employee. Do you talk to or at your employees? Are you actively listening to them and their needs? Do you assume some employees are beyond the reach of unions? Every employee is considered fair game for unions. Ensure you are listening to your employees and their struggles to address one of the biggest vulnerabilities to union organizing.

3. Grievances that Shouldn't Reach the Grievance Stage

One of the things that make companies vulnerable to union organizing is management that doesn't care what its employees are thinking or feeling. The company leaders don't provide opportunities for employees to express their concerns or creative ideas. 

In many organizations, the only way for an employee to get attention is to file a formal grievance. Though having a grievance procedure in place is crucial to staying union-free, it is only one factor in the communication process. Engaging and motivating employees is a process in which leaders develop a good working relationship with employees based on open and honest dialogue and feedback.

A major indication a company is vulnerable to union organizing is when there is an uptick in the number of grievances, or the formal grievances that reach end stages in the grievance process filed could have been handled at a lower level through better leadership. Are your leaders trained down to the supervisor level in conflict management and problem-solving?

4. Frequent Complaints about the Same Issue

When supervisors and managers begin to hear the same issues over and over again, their problems needing resolution. The issues could concern work schedules, safety threats, compensation, lack of certain benefits, Human Resources policies, discriminatory practices, organizational changes, and a host of other hot button matters. 

Employees talk with each other and to family members, and they post their complaints online. Unfortunately, too many employers don't have good data collection systems that put the pieces together. What if there are ten or 30 employees with the same complaint? Would you know it's not just John's issue in the finance department or Mary's issue in the tech unit? 

Traditional statistics can point to serious issues. For example, low employee engagement scores or high turnover rates, or lack of diversity among people promoted are all good examples of festering problems, making your business vulnerable to unions. 

Unfortunately, there is an information gap in many workplaces. Do you know for a fact that the information and data collected is presenting a clear picture across the organization? Information and data siloes are still common and can leave employers with incomplete information.

5. Management is Not Pro-Employee

There is a fine balance between business leaders explaining the company's philosophy on unions within legal requirements and coming across as an employer who has no concern for employee rights and only cares about profits. 

Social media sites are filled with employees sharing statements shared by their supervisors. You are making your company vulnerable to unions when your leaders make statements like the following to employees:

  • Go get another job if you think it's so bad around here
  • Don't tell me your problems because I can't help you
  • Sorry if you think you're underpaid, but not much I can do about it
  • Top management doesn't really care what you or I think
  • I know you think it's unfair, but I can't explain why that decision was made
  • I'll get back to you (and never does)
  • If I ever catch anyone in my department talking about unions, I'll fire anyone involved
  • You've had enough training and should be able to handle the job 

Employees need to feel valued at all times. Commonly, employers will react to signs of unionization and suddenly bend over backward to prove the company is pro-employee in an attempt to avoid unionization. 

They should have been pro-employee all along – from the first contact as a job applicant to the day the employee leaves the organization. Company culture does matter, and how leaders communicate is a major determinant of culture.

6. Safety and Security Issues are Not Addressed

Unions place safety and security as a top issue to address. Their brand is "we care about you." Ignoring safety issues is always a problem. Sometimes, it's not intentional. An employee tells a supervisor about a potential slip-and-fall situation or equipment posing a danger, and the supervisor gets busy and forgets to follow up. 

Maintaining meticulous safety records includes documenting safety and security issues and providing a description of corrective actions taken. That is not the final step. Communicate to the workforce the action taken in a newsletter or through internal social media. It helps to solidify the fact you do value your employees. 

7. Failing to Follow Good Talent Management Practices

Are all Human Resources policies closely followed and consistently applied? Employees are likely to eventually turn to a union when they believe managers can use their personal biases to decide who gets a raise, a deserved promotion, or a training opportunity. Bias in the workplace can quickly lead to unionization.

It is imperative to continually assess the talent management system to ensure it is always fair. Bias can slip into recruiting, hiring, and promotion processes, especially unconscious bias. 

8. Union Philosophy is Not Explained and Reinforced From Pre-Hire Forward

Communicating the company's union philosophy throughout the employee experience is critical. From the job interview to the last day of employment, the employee should hear and read about the impact of unionization on the company and why unions are not necessary. 

  • Maintain a company website dedicated to unionization
  • Review the union philosophy with job candidates to ensure they know this is a non-union company
  • Regularly reinforce the positive aspects of working for the company

Regularly reinforce employee knowledge of procedures concerning grievances, safety, and security, utilizing the open-door management policy. HR policies and procedures, etc.

Most employees will not join a union if they understand the full impact of unionization on their work lives and the company.  

Don't Let Vulnerabilities Slip through the Cracks

The momentum is gathering speed in favor of unions. Gallup found in August 2019 that 64-percent of Americans approved of unions. That is close to a 50-year high. Companies that ignore their vulnerabilities will find themselves targets of unions.

Developing good employer-employee relationships is the best way to address the many vulnerabilities to union organizing that your company might be facing. And developing positive relationships depends on informed organizational leaders who are good communicators, and trained in quality leadership skills

There is no magic formula for staying union-free. There are too many factors at play. Vulnerabilities can often slip through the cracks, so to speak.

Prevent Your Workplace from being Vulnerable to Union Organizing

For this reason, Projections has developed a comprehensive ongoing program to help employers manage the many aspects of keeping unions out – union proofing strategies and union organizing responses; leadership training; union website development and maintenance; access to professional labor resources; and video, web, and eLearning solutions for workforce communication. We would be happy to provide you with a custom solution for your organization.

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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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