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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Coronavirus Update 5-28-2020: Is your business ready for the COVID-19 golden age of union organizing?


Among the many lessons we will learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is its demonstration of the importance of union membership for essential workers.

Of all the injustices exposed by the pandemic, the risks faced by non-union workers have become the most apparent. Non-union workers are being asked to risk their safety with little or no protections of their own.
Gary Perinar (executive secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters), The importance of unions is more obvious than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago Sun-Times, Apr. 30, 2020

One of the unexpected byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a corresponding rise in union organizing. This crisis has magnified attention on key labor union agenda items and talking points such as worker safety and higher pay. Unions have not been shy about pressing these issues not only for current members but also more importantly for potential members.

  • The Teamsters is backing Amazon warehouse workers. 
  • The UFCW is helping organize Instacart shoppers. 
  • The SEIU is funding fast-food activists and Uber / Lyft drivers.

Indeed, according to Richard Berman, the founder of the Center for Union Facts, this union activity is part of a much larger trend:

  • This is the first time since the early 1980s where I sense significant interest by employees in "collective action" and "3rd party representation". 
  • Gallup polling in 2019 shows the 18-34 demographic has a 69% approval of unions. In 2017, 76% of those joining unions were younger than 35. 
  • Employees who feel they will be exposed to co-workers or customers who have the virus are communicating on Facebook and other platforms about their jointly held concerns. Union organizers have access to these conversations and are making themselves available to help. 
  • Most current HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion. This will most likely happen in individual companies or it could be a wider industry movement in a city or region.

That last point might be the one most important to your business. "Most current HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion." What should your business be doing right now to best prepare itself in the event a union starts talking to your employees? The best defense is a good offense. I recommend that employers adopt the T.E.A.M. approach to union avoidance:

     Train supervisors
     Educate employees
     Affirm the open door
     Modernize policies

1. Train Supervisors. If a union is organizing, supervisors are likely to be the first people to know. They will also be the people that rank-and-file employees will come to with questions or concerns. Thus, supervisors need to know how to report, monitor, and legally respond to union activity.

2. Educate Employees. Employees should not be told that the company is anti-union, but why it is anti-union – competitive wages and benefits; a strong commitment to worker safety and health; positive communication between management and employees; a history of peaceful employee/management relations; management's openness to listen to employees and handle their concerns without an intermediary; and an unwillingness to permit a third-party to tell the company and employees how to do their jobs. Of course, if this is just lip service, you might as well not say it at all. 

3. Affirm the Open Door. Management should routinely round its employees to learn what is happening within the rank-and-file and what they are thinking about. Management should walk the floor on a daily basis. It should also hold regular meetings with employees, whether in small sessions with HR or large town hall-style meetings. And management's door should always be open to listen to employees' concerns, offer feedback, and adopt positive change when feasible and practical.

4. Modernize Policies. In an ideal world, employee handbooks and other corporate policies should be reviewed and updated annually. I've yet to come across a company that does so this frequently. Issues to consider and review? Do you have a written statement on unionization? An open-door policy? An issue resolution procedure? Peer review? An employee bulletin board? An electronic communications policy? Most importantly, do you have a no-solicitation policy? It is the single most important policy to help fight labor unions.

No avoidance program is foolproof. No matter what steps are taken and no matter the quality of employee relations, every company is at some risk for a union organizing campaign. Some, however, are more at risk than others. All businesses should strive to be an employer of choice for employees and not an employer of opportunity for labor unions. The steps you take before that representation petition ever arrives will help define whether you remain a non-union employer.

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