Surviving the New Union Threat

January 21, 2000

The winter's "Battle in Seattle" displayed to the Nation the new, radical face of organized labor. Labor unions joined with smaller protest groups to "shut down" Seattle, Washington, during the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization [WTO]. Massive demonstrations erupted in riots. Few employers will face labor union riots, but all employers must now come to grip with the most aggressive union movement in decades.

Labor unions are desperate for more power and new members. Not since the 1930s have unions been so focused on targeting employers for union organizing drives. No employers are exempt. Office workers, service employees, health care workers, and even professionals like physicians and computer programmers, are the objects of recruiting efforts by unions, which were once focused exclusively on manufacturing or construction workers.

Businesses that are caught "off-guard" face the greatest risk. Today's union organizing techniques are specifically designed to take advantage of the unaware and ill-prepared employer. The purpose of this article is to keep your business from being among them.

The New Union Organizing Technique.

Today, most unions employ an organizing technique known as the "Blitz." The "Blitz" relies upon secrecy and quick action. Its stated purpose is to give the union "the jump on the company" by hiding from the employer any evidence of union activity until most of the union's recruiting work is done. Then, the union asks for a vote on unionization as soon as possible. Through this means, union organizers seek to sell the "advantages" of unionization, before the employees can learn he truth about unions.

The Union Election Process.

Under federal labor law, unions can force employers to "recognize" and bargain with a union, as the "exclusive representative" of employees, if the union obtains a majority of employee votes cast in a secret ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB]. The NLRB will conduct such a union election in every place of employment where the union can show that, at least, 30% of the employees are interested in being represented by the union. Unions usually obtain such a "showing of interest" by asking employees to sign union cards. Except under rare circumstances, the NLRB now insists that an election be held within forty-two (42) days of the union's "petition" for an election. This NLRB procedural rule acts to support the union's goal of following the secret portion of its organizing campaign with a quick election.

Key Steps to Defeating a Union Organizing Campaign.

Employers can defeat today's union organizing techniques, however, by following three basic steps.

Step 1: Don't Have One.

The surest way for management to win a union organizing campaign is don't have one. Although unions only need a 30% "showing of interest" in order to obtain an NLRB election, unions almost always will not ask for an election unless the union has secured union cards from over 50% of the employees. Sometimes, unions even wait until they have cards from up to 75% of the workers.

Unions want to begin with majority support because the level of employee support usually peaks at the conclusion of the union's cardsigning campaign. If the union cannot secure the support of the majority of employees, at a time when the employees are hearing only the union's one-sided sales pitch, the union is unlikely to obtain the necessary votes of a majority once all employees have learned the many disadvantages of working under a union.

Unions are not interested in investing their time or money in elections that they are unlikely to win. For this reason, employers can keep a labor union from ever asking for an NLRB election by persuading a majority of employees not to express an interest in a union. With union use of the "Blitz" campaign, however, employers are far less likely to know, in advance, that a union is soliciting employees. Accordingly, employee resistance to unions must be developed in advance of union solicitation.

ACTION NEEDED. This is accomplished in two ways. Most importantly, a "union-free environment" must be created within the workplace. Surprisingly, surveys show that wages and benefits are not the primary reason workers become interested in unions. Workers become susceptible to exploitation by unions whenever workers conclude, rightly or wrongly, that they are not respected by their immediate supervisors, or cared about by their company. The two most important questions a union organizer asks an employee are:

1. Does your supervisor treat you with respect?

2. Does your company care for you as a person?

If the employee answers "yes" to both of these questions, the organizer will, likely, give up on this prospect, and his/her employer. This is because unions almost never succeed in unionizing an employer whose employees are convinced that they are respected by their supervisors and cared for by their company.

In addition to creating a "union-free environment" within the workplace, however, employers should communicate plainly to their employees why they are better off working free from unions before union solicitation begins. Employers sometimes believe that their employees will not think of unionization if the employer simply avoids the subject. This is wishful thinking. Talking with employees about unions is not unlike talking with teenagers about sex. Just because teenagers do not ask their parents about sex, doesn't mean they are not thinking about it, or talking with their friends about it. Employers should not wait for a union organizer to be the first person to talk to employees about unions.

Most union-free employers would be well served to explain to employees at new hire orientations, in the employee handbook, and through similar communication tools, why working free from unions is in the employees' best interest. Freedom from union dues, the risk of union strikes, and the many other burdens of union membership is an important "fringe benefit" of working for a union-free employer, a fringe benefit that only employees can preserve.

Employers should also be prepared to make an immediate (within 24 hours) oral and/or written counter-attack upon learning that employees have been targeted for a union organizing campaign.

Sample points for counter-attack include the following:

Employees have something the union wants--their money. The real reason the union is "interested" in employees is to collect money from them in the form of union dues, fines and assessments.

Unions are "hurting" for members. Give the specifics on how union membership has been dropping. Nine out of ten American workers now work free from unions.

Unions have huge overhead expenses. They want employees to help carry the heavy burden of union expenses. Give specifics for the particular union that is recruiting your employees. (For example, the Teamsters Union annually pays more than $24 million in salaries to its officers and staff.)

Unions undermine job security by killing team work and hurting competitiveness. A union justifies its dues by getting management and employees to fight with each other and forget about the customers. No customers . . . no jobs.

Customers prefer union-free vendors, with no risk of interruption in deliveries or services from strikes. Teamwork efficiency produces better quality and services at a competitive price.

Signing a union card says you want to buy the union's services.

Unions sometimes use union cards to become the legal representatives of employees WITHOUT an election. Employees should not sign a card unless they know that they want to pay union dues and accept the other burdens of union membership.

Not secret: Union cards may be shown to management, to other employees, and to a Court.

In-plant union organizers often want special privileges over other employees, such as super seniority on lay-off and recall.

Unions have a "P & P" strategy: Make PROMISES and PESTER employees to get union cards signed.

Have you ever tried to "get rid of" a salesperson once he/she believes you are interested in his/her product? Employees are often tempted to sign a union card thinking the union pusher will then leave them alone. Just the opposite is true.

Employees have every right to JUST SAY NO if asked to sign a union card.

CAUTION:  Federal law regulates employer communications to employees about Labor Unions. You should consult your labor law counsel about specifics to insure that your communications are both effective and legal.

If persistent efforts to get employees to sign union cards fail, a union will often abandon all organizing efforts . . . for awhile. If the union obtains cards from 51% or more of your employees, you can expect it to petition the NLRB for a Representation Election. Nevertheless, your pre-petition education of employees about the advantages of staying union-free will have hurt the union's momentum and will help you win the election.

CAUTION:  Never examine union cards! Federal law can make a union the representative of all employees if an employer's inspection of union cards reveals that more than half of the employees signed cards. DO NOT ACCEPT union cards from an organizer. Insist upon a SECRET BALLOT ELECTION by the NLRB.

Step 2:  Recruit Campaign Workers.

An NLRB election is exactly like a political campaign. Employees vote to elect the leadership for their jobs and their futures . . . either union or management. Usually, NLRB elections are won or lost at the "grass roots" . . . meaning the front line supervisors.

WARNING:  You cannot assume that your front line supervisors are genuinely opposed to a union, or that they know WHY employees should be opposed to a union. Many supervisors erroneously believe that unions mean higher wages for employees and supervisors. Some even believe it is "easier to manage" with a union.

ACTION NEEDED: Recruit your supervisors to campaign vigorously against the union by giving them the facts about how a union will affect their jobs.

Examples of What a Union Means to Supervisors:

Union contracts are filled with "can'ts" and "have-to's" for supervisors.

Most union grievances are about supervisor actions, such as assignment of work, overtime, break times, discipline, safety, etc.

Most grievances "put the supervisor on trial," forcing the supervisor to have to defend him/herself.

In the grievance process, the supervisor's authority is at stake. Yet, the supervisor seldom is directly involved at the final resolution of grievances.

The union steward is usually selected because he or she likes "to stand up to" the supervisor.

Like a traffic cop without speeding tickets, a union steward without grievances "isn't dong his/her job."

During strikes, supervisors and other managers must cross an angry, and sometimes violent, picket line to spend long hours getting out production or performing the services usually performed by the striking employees.

Supervisor surrenders authority to the union steward, but no responsibility.

Union stewards sometimes control assignment of particular supervisors. The steward says: "If you assign Jane Supervisor to my department, there is going to be trouble."

Once supervisors are "recruited" to be your grassroots "campaign workers," they must be trained to lawfully and effectively communicate with employees why employees should oppose labor unions. The supervisors must be armed with the facts about why employees are hurt by union membership. Employers, and their supervisors, have every legal right to communicate these truths to their employees.

Supervisors, and all other managers, however, must avoid threatening, interrogating, making promises, or spying on employees to discourage union activity. These basic rules are often known by the memory aid "TIPS." Such efforts to intimidate or coerce employees are unlawful, but equally important they are counterproductive.

Employees are more likely to turn to a union if they observe their employer resorting to threats, interrogation, or spying. Such heavy handed tactics send the message that their employer does not respect or care about them. Promises made in an effort to convince employees not to support a union have the unintended effect of creating the impression that unions are effective in securing benefits for employees. Employees reason, "If my boss is promising a pay increase just because a union wants to represent me, think how powerful a union would be if a majority of employees vote for the union." The facts are that employees are far better off staying free from unions. Persuasive presentation of these facts is far more effective in convincing employees to stay union-free than any unlawful communication.

Step 3: Control the Campaign and Timing of Issues.

An NLRB election is decided by the issues on the minds of employees on Election Day. In each union campaign, there are issues which favor the union (UNION ISSUES) and issues which favor the employer (COMPANY ISSUES). Employers want to have the company issues foremost on the minds of the voters on Election Day.

For example, if the issue most on employees' minds is wages, many employees will vote for the union. Although untrue, employees are easily convinced that a union may bring higher wages. If, however, the issue most on employees' minds is STRIKES, most employees will vote against the union. Realistically, the only way to guarantee that there will never be a strike is to stay union-free.

WARNING:  A natural management reaction to union activity is to make "knee jerk responses" to each union claim, promise or charge. This is a recipe for disaster! You are letting the union control the timing of the issues. Management loses.

ACTION NEEDED:

Identify issues. Management, including front line supervisors, must work with your labor law counsel to carefully identify the UNION issues and the COMPANY issues, at the beginning of the campaign.

Control the timing of issues: Management, working with labor law counsel, should establish a campaign calendar setting the dates when each issue will be addressed.

Union issues should be addressed early in the campaign. Management issues should be addressed later in the campaign. The most powerful management issues should be reserved for the final days before the vote.

Results.

Employer wins . . . employees win . . . union loses! Experience shows that when management effectively takes these THREE KEY STEPS, union organizing campaigns are defeated.

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