What Actually Happens During A Union Organizing Drive?

It all comes down to trust during a union organizing drive. Trust has a direct impact on the level of employee engagement, team performance, the organization’s culture, and employee-employer relationships. Great workplace cultures have high levels of trust, and high levels of trust require active employee engagement. That is why unions work to destroy the faith that employees have in their managers to treat them fairly, ethically, and transparently. This is the modus operandi of every union campaign– destroy trust so that all processes, systems, policies, procedures, and decision-making are brought into question.

Trust is the Glue Holding Workplace Relationships Together

The Great Place to Work Institute names the 100 best places to work each year. A full 85 percent of the evaluation used is based upon what employees say about trust in their workplaces. Trust Across America names Top Thought Leaders in Trust each year. The organization provides an assessment that leaders, teams, and organizations can use to elevate employee engagement and retention and promote accountability, transparency, and communication by beginning a trust conversation. Trust is the glue that holds a workforce together and strengthens employee-employer relationships.

If you wanted to unionize a workforce, what should be put into doubt? The answer is trust. Unions will encourage employees to doubt an employer’s motives, end goals, and sincerity. Essentially, the employer cannot be trusted to make decisions that are fair and have the employees’ interests in mind. The unions try to convince employees that their employer’s stated intentions are not genuine. Their ultimate goal is only to make more profits at their expense. The employer doesn’t keep promises, doesn’t appreciate employee contributions, and doesn’t respect employees. It is a decades-old union approach designed to melt the glue.

Implied Contract of Trust

Labor relations professionals talk about the implied contract of employment. A collective bargaining agreement lays out specific work rules in writing. However, there is also an implied contract that is about things like honesty, trust, and integrity. No one accepts a position expecting to be mistreated.

The phrase “mutual trust and confidence“” is a legal term in common law, and various court cases in England have embedded it in law. Though not codified in the U.S., the implied contract still exists. The implied contract assumes that neither the employer nor the employee will act in a dishonest, unethical, or untrustworthy manner. Both parties will act in good faith, which is a U.S. legal principle. This is the key to the union campaign – convincing employees the employer has breached a duty to treat people fairly and honestly and are not acting in good faith, so employees need a collective bargaining agreement with hard and fast work rules and representation.

Damaging employee-employer relationships is one of the first of many negative impacts of a union campaign on employees. The workplace culture is changed because the ability to trust in management is questioned. During the union organizing drive, union representatives will use terms like “good faith” and “fairness” to convince employees their employers are not adhering to either principle. 

The demands of the United Auto Workers who are on strike at General Motors strike are founded on the premise the employer did not keep its promises to treat workers fairly once the company was on solid financial footing again. In other words, GM’s management cannot be trusted. It always comes down to trust.

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Tallying Up the Consequences of a Union Organizing Drive

Employee-employer relationships are impacted in other ways. One is that there will be employees who are for and against unionization. It, too, becomes a lack of trust. The group not supporting unions always wonders if coworkers are waiting and watching for something they can take to the union or to management as a grievance. The employees supporting unions see the non-union supporting group as traitors to the cause. Unions don’t give up when they lose an election. They try again at some point, especially if the vote was close.

The consequences of lost trust and confidence are often severe and long-lasting, whether the union organizing drive succeeds or fails. The “us v. them” mentality becomes the way of doing business, and that keeps employees from coming to leaders with concerns, issues, great ideas, and anything that’s personal in nature.

Innovation is lost. Productivity is reduced. Collaboration is made more difficult. Performance declines. People cannot work at their best when unhappy, fearful, or untrusting. As attorney Mike Einterz explains, “Unfortunately, current labor relations discussions have become centered on less work for more pay, more benefits, and more control. Concepts of productivity, profitability, and shared risk have left the debate. This results in adversarial relationships that are tense and unproductive.” For global firms (which most are today), this is not a “U.S. union problem.” Unions are hurting employee-employer relationships around the world. 

Walking on Eggshells

The side effects of a union organizing drive impact the attitudes and perspectives of organizational leaders too. Supervisors and managers are also at risk of being plagued with the “us v. them” mentality due to a union organizing campaign. Leaders may become distrustful of employees, thinking they might be undermined at any time (again, win or lose).

The term “walking on eggshells” applies in this situation. Supervisors and other managers begin to think in terms of, “I can’t trust some of my employees, but I’m not sure who!” and “What will I inadvertently do that drives employees to the union with a complaint?” In Canada, Howard Levitt conducted a labor campaign for an Ontario manufacturer. He sent a letter to the union in response to a letter the union sent employees. 

The union attorney sent a letter back that, remarkably, said the manufacturer is not entitled to a response because the employee-employer relationship is strictly based on an economic exchange of labor for payment, the employer only wants to interfere in the trade union’s administration and the employer has no right to communicate with employees. Essentially, the union was saying that employers and employees are opposing parties, and employees need shielding. Therefore, the employer only has the right to address the exchange of labor for money.

The union does not consider loyalty to the employer, pride in the organization, and the need for communication in a flexible work environment. It also sees itself as the only organization that has the right to address these issues, if it chooses to do so. The union takes this stance because alienating employees from their employers is a strategy for creating dependence on the union and gaining control of the workplace. 

To Protect Rights or Create Adversaries?

One author in City Journal called the side effect of negativism the result of the NLRAs “model of hyper-adversarialism.” Most of the rights protected by the NLRA have been legislated in the last 80 years. Employment regulations mean the unions had to find another way to fight, and they focused on the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) failure to protect the free choice of workers. The law requires an open union organizing campaign before a vote, meaning the employer can legally inform workers about the drawbacks of joining a union. 

So union organizers say their remedy is to get rules in place that support things like “card check.” The NLRA model has led to an almost guaranteed conflict-ridden employee-employer relationship that produces short term gains and reduces workers’ values and opportunities. There is now a prevalence of “destructive work rules, circuitous grievance procedures, and counterproductive seniority systems” in union contracts. This particular author goes on to call for reformed union and alternative organizing. The bigger message is that unions have become damaging to employee/employer relationships. A union organizing campaign is harmful to the workplace, whether or not the vote is yea or nay.

What can you do, knowing there are negative impacts on whether the union wins or loses? During the union organizing drive, the employer’s primary goal is to reinforce the truth about policies and procedures and to explain, in a transparent manner, the reasons the employer opposes unionization. Instead of being adversarial, it is an excellent time to reinforce employee engagement

NRLA Training: Speak Up from UnionProof

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

For the second time in two years, the Chattanooga, TN Volkswagen plant employees voted not to unionize. Christopher Bitton is an employee at the plant who opposed unionizing, and he shared words of wisdom. “There has been a clear division between pro and anti on the floor, and after this is over, I don’t know whether or not this is going to clear up.”

This is the employer’s challenge. How do you “clear up”” the ill feelings, disengagement and lack of trust, even after a vote? What do you do to combat the union’s claims of victory (should they win) or the anger pro-union employees feel (should they lose)? How do you become a better leader? It’s not easy, but the key is communication. People need regular, transparent communication. Ultimately, the reason there are so many articles and so many workshops on workplace communication is that it sorely lacks in many organizations.

Technology offers easy communication paths. Engaging employees today requires frequent contact, truthfulness and transparency, accessibility, and training. An issue with union campaigns is they are distracting from the purpose of the business. The General Motors strike is a good example. Is anyone talking about the company’s innovations in electric vehicles or new models or customer service improvements? No! They are talking about the strike, unions, the evil employer, and broken promises. Where is the customer in all of this?

Make Sure The Communication is Effective

Effective employee communication before, during, and after a union campaign is the key to restoring trust and engaging employees in pursuing organizational and personal success. It sounds simple, but restoring employee-employer relationships in the business through communication tools is crucial to keeping employees engaged in the corporate mission. There are videos, websites, eLearning modules, workshops (in person and web-based), and more. Use all the tools for employee and leadership training, and to maintain regular contact with employees.

During the union drive, these tools can be used to explain the company’s position on unions. They will reinforce the advantages of a union-free workplace and factually explain the impacts of unions, such as dues and restricted promotion abilities, etc. After the union vote, use the tools to re-connect with all employees in new ways. Reinforce the business mission and values, and any changes made in response to the issues that led to the union vote in the first place.

Taking Action

Win or lose, restoring a positive culture after a union campaign is critical. Remember that even if the union gets voted in, a collective bargaining agreement is not permanent. It has an expiration date, so your goal is to make employees not want a union. They can decide to pursue decertification at a later date, or not vote to renew the contract. Employees need to see action on your part. You may need to revise your grievance procedures, improve the communication process, offer more learning opportunities, or revisit work schedules, to name a few.

If a union campaign took place, it means the company’s leaders need more training in effectively communicating with and engaging employees. Engaged employees are unlikely to vote for a union or to disrupt the workplace or resent coworkers or supervisors. One of the first items to look at is the employee feedback process. It’s natural for people to avoid actively seeking employee complaints, but that is the managers’ role. Solicit employee issues, so there are no surprises. Your managers need to know how to listen actively and how to give and receive feedback.

The second thing to consider is whether there is a process for ensuring employee grievances are being addressed. When people don’t believe they are heard, or are being patronized, they become resentful. The research has shown many times that employees’ trust issues with managers are largely due to poor management communication skills. A study by Ultimate Software uncovered some eye-opening information. The survey of 2,000 employees found there is a communication breakdown. 55 percent of employees agree their managers are transparent; while 45 percent of managers never received formal management training. 75 percent of employees said approachability is the most important manager quality. Only 50 percent stated they have an approachable manager.

Never-Ending Employee Engagement Process

Communication builds trust, and trust is needed to return to the business at hand – providing high-quality customer service. A “Best Place to Work” winner, Kevin Kruse, talks about research based on 10 million workers and his own experience as pointing to this conclusion: people feel engaged when they experience growth, recognition, and trust. He also points out that engagement is not a “nice-to-have.” Engagement establishes a link between productivity, customer loyalty and service, and the bottom line.

The side effects of a union organizing drive on employees endure long beyond the immediate consequences of a vote that is won or lost. It’s just another reason to stay union-free. Engaging employees is a never-ending process before, during, and after a union campaign. Ultimately, your leaders need to be good at it – win or lose.

About the Author

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, 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.