The Language of Unionization

The Language of Unionization from UnionProof

Unions succeed by making employees feel hostile toward their employers. Early signs of the hostility are found in the language of unionization. Employees begin making statements and using words or phrases that indicate that they are listening to a union sales pitch. One employer strategy for staying union free is training leaders to recognize “union talk,” even when the word union is not used.

Making a Statement

The language of unionization is more formal, negative and legal sounding than normal everyday language. Employees begin to state issues differently when approaching management. For example:

  • “I have a problem,” becomes “I have a grievance.”
  • “The manager continually nitpicks my work, finding fault in everything I do. I think he is trying to get me to quit because I am the only African-American,” is now “This has become is a hostile work environment. My supervisor continually harasses me.”
  • “I have been here longer and thought I would get the job,” becomes “I have seniority and according to company policy the job is mine by rights.”
  • “Someone is going to get injured if that equipment isn’t replaced,” is replaced by “This is an unsafe work environment.”
  • “You didn’t tell us you there were going to be layoffs!” becomes “You did not give us any notice of intent that you planned to lay off 10 people.”

Reading Between the Lines

Union talk is more formal and legalistic, and specific word choice is important. A grievance refers to a formal process for resolving a complaint against management. Employees who use it are indicating that they feel they have been wronged and would consider a formal process of redress. One step for staying union free is developing and communicating policies and procedures that give employees a clear path for addressing workplace issues.

When someone calls a workplace hostile, the employee is claiming that his or her working conditions have become intolerable because of ongoing harassment or discrimination. Employees who talk about seniority or company policy and rights, rather than simply asking for an explanation or review, are likely talking to a union.

Safety and security are two important issues for employees, thus unions use them for leverage. The unions play on the fears of employees. They convince them that their health and welfare are threatened because the employer does not really care about them. However, the typical employee will not use the phrase “unsafe work environment.” It’s a formal term indicating a much broader issue than something like a piece of equipment that needs replacing or a frayed electrical cord.

The term “notice of intent” is a legal term in the language of unions. It refers to a formal notification given to employers concerning an intent to negotiate contracts, strike or other union activities.

Choosing Words

Employees will also begin to make statements that include the language of unionization. Sometimes the shift from informal to formal speech is slow, and union terms begin to pop up over time. In the following statements, the typical union terms are in bold.

  • I asked my manager to cease and desist.
  • She broke the rules and is guilty of policy violations.
  • We are disputing the department head’s claims.
  • Managers are not operating in good faith.
  • She is representing all the production line employees.
  • The NLRA says you cannot do that.
  • That is an unfair labor practice.

It is not a single statement that causes concern. It is the general, frequent and experienced use of the terms that let an employer know that employees are talking to union representatives. Most employees never voluntarily read the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) unless they are talking to union representatives or have a specific complaint. When an employee shows specific knowledge of the NLRA, and the employer has not provided NLRA training, it is likely that he or she has been talking to a union. It is the employer who should be training employees on employee and employer rights, and be willing to talk about unions in open communication.

What is the Message?

Managers and supervisors often sense a change in the atmosphere of the workplace before they notice the use of union language. Once the union language is detected, it is important to understand that you can turn some of the negative and legalistic language into opportunities to address employee concerns and make necessary policy or operational changes.

Unions are very good at turning non-issues into issues, but some employee statements are sending messages that the employer needs to pay attention to. There really may be a manager who is harassing employees and requires additional training on discriminatory practices. Perhaps an employee may have been overlooked in the promotion process. There might be a piece of equipment that needs replacement or repair to improve safety. The important point is to follow up on the statements that deserve attention and successfully put non-issues to rest.

Little Card, Big Trouble from UnionProof

At the same time, if you detect the language of unionization and are concerned about employees organizing, you should immediately begin union proofing the workplace to fend off a card signing. Union proofing is a process in which you educate employees about the impact of unionization and address their workplace issues. As an employer, you will develop better leaders and a comprehensive communication program that improves employer-employee relationships. Take away the reasons people consider unionizing, and you can stay union free.

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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