Tuesday, October 19, 2021

“Striketober” highlights union organizing concerns for Ohio craft breweries

One of the unexpected byproducts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is a corresponding rise in union organizing and other union-related activity. This crisis has magnified attention on key union agenda items and talking points such as worker safety and higher pay. Unions have not been shy about pressing these issues. "Striketober" is in full effect, with more than 100,000 workers walking off the job in the past week alone. According to The Wall Street Journal, employees are angry and are increasingly turning to labor unions to vent.

Unions, however, are not just focusing on current members. More importantly for all employers, potential members also have unions' full attention. Indeed, earlier this summer, and hitting way too close to home, production employees at Great Lakes Brewing Company, Ohio's oldest and largest craft brewery, signed union cards to be represented by the United Steelworkers.

According to Richard Berman, the founder of the Center for Union Facts, this union activity is part of a much larger nationwide trend:
  • This is the first time since the early 1980s where there has been significant interest by employees in "collective action" and "3rd party representation".
  • 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.

If you are a craft brewery, that last point is the most critical one to your business. "Most current HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion." If Great Lakes is emblematic of a growing trend within the craft beer industry — and unions tend to choose specific industries and regions on which to focus their efforts — then your brewery, right now, must be preparing itself in the event a union starts talking to your employees.

The best defense to a labor union is a good offense. To this end I recommend that breweries 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 gather its employees to learn what is happening within the rank-and-file and what they are thinking about. Management should walk the floor daily. 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 listening 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 this so 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 union 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, and it appears that, currently, unions are targeting the craft beer industry. 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 the representation petition arrives will help determine whether you remain a non-union employer after the fact. If you wait to do anything, however, until after the petition arrives, it's almost certainly too late.