As union support continues to escalate among long-term care industry workers, managers are constantly looking for ways to halt organizing efforts. Eager to offer assistance is Stephen J. Cabot, an attorney and Chairman of The Cabot Institute for Labor Relations, Inc. Cabot, author of the book "Everybody Wins!" a labor relations manual for managers, is listed in the Who's Who directories for American Business and International Business. He recently shared some of his union-avoidance ideas with McKnight's Long-Term Care News.
With Stephen J. Cabot
McKnight's LTC News: Is it fair to characterize you as anti-union?
Cabot: If playing hardball on behalf of my clients means that I'm anti-union, then so be it. But I'm no more a union buster than [AFL-CIO President] John Sweeney is a company buster. There are some unions in the United States that act with responsibility and there are some that don't. When there are irresponsible actions taken by unions, or when they take positions to thwart a company's ability to remain viable and competitive, then it's up to me to make sure my clients achieve their business objectives.
McKnight's LTC News: What is wrong with unions?
Cabot: Although they deny it, unions often strive toward creating mediocrity in the workplace. That is because they protect employees who aren't good workers. They also seek to restrict management's right to manage. By shielding those employees who don't deserve it and by attacking a company's flexibility, unions impede a company's ability to remain competitive. Form their perspective, unions believe that if companies have too much authority, that authority will be abused. While that might be 1 in some cases, the vast majority of companies realize they need a motivated workforce in order to operate in an appropriate fashion. If management doesn't keep workers happy, they will rebel.
McKnight's LTC News: Union organizing is steadily increasing in the long-term care industry. Have you been following this trend?
Cabot: I am very familiar with what is happening in the health care industry. In fact, I represent many of your readers. I've been practicing law for 32 years and have represented many health care facilities during that time. Unions are gaining more control in health care because too many facilities haven't taken effective steps to discourage union organizing. They have created an environment where employees feel a union is necessary. For instance, in many facilities it is taboo for management to discuss wage, staffing and benefits issues with employees. That must change. One effective way to turn that around is to form a structured questionnaire in which workers can respond to issues in the workplace. Sample questions could be " Are the wages at this facility comparable to others in the area? " Or " Is your supervisor responsive to your needs? "
By getting employees to build a dialogue on these issues, it is easier to discuss them and it stays outside the union context. It is imperative for employers to let their workers know why things are a certain way. The goal is to develop a communications strategy so workers will have a vehicle to be heard. In turn, employees must allow management to respond. There doesn't have to be agreement, only acceptance through understanding. That leads to a "we" mentality as opposed to the " us vs. them " attitude that unions often create.
McKnight's LTC News: The long-term care industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry. How can management improve that situation?
Cabot: People need to feel like they're being treated well economically and that management recognizes their value to the company. When workers are allowed to participate in decision-making, it builds a ladder of working toward the "we" concept. There are many things management can do to create this atmosphere. I've already mentioned that employers can survey their workers about wages and working conditions. In addition to those, include the question "What can we do to reduce turnover?" Give cash rewards for ideas about how to curb turnover. Get real input and know how people feel. Do more than put your thumb in the dike. Respond to the needs and concerns of the employees. Because when they're ignored, people move to where the grass is greener. It is up to management to develop the greenest grass in town.
McKnight's LTC News: In the case of Allentown (PA) Mark Sales & Service Inc. vs. the National Labor Relations Board, the Supreme Court unanimously supported the board's rule that stipulates there must be a "good faith reasonable doubt" standard in order for employers to poll workers on their support for an incumbent union. What message does that decision send?
Cabot: The National Labor Relations Board has touted the Supreme Court's ruling as a win for labor -- but it isn't. After all, employer polling is still permitted. I think the standard is too high -- the board used a myopic test for application of the standard and not the totality of the circumstances. But the standard has been the same since it was implemented in 1935. The court's position doesn't surprise me and it doesn't concern me too much.
McKnight's LTC News: Union membership has fallen dramatically in the United States since it peaked in the 1950s. Why?
Cabot: Several reasons. In the 1960s, the federal government created a number of agencies to protect workers, like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The creation of those agencies meant that people didn't need the unions for those protections anymore. Then in the 1970s, unions drove up inflation with excessive wage and benefit demands. Corporations kept up by passing the cost on to their customers. It drove many companies into bankruptcy. When global market competition started in the 1980s, companies could no longer afford to pass along those price increases. There were other factors in the 1980s as well -- President Reagan's firing of the striking air traffic controllers, the growth of white collar jobs and an increasing skepticism by the public about the value of unions.
McKnight's LTC News: A new study by the [New York-based] Families and Work Institute has found that job-related stress is climbing, along with the number of hours in the average work week. Doesn't that type of job climate encourage union organizing?
Cabot: Absolutely. I tell my clients that problems on the job usually start at home. Management needs to be responsive to this situation. Employee assistance programs are a good way to handle it. Another is to designate an employee assistance representative to make the rounds and encourage people to talk about their problems -- not just problems that occur on the job, but problems that occur at home as well.
McKnight's LTC News: A 1979 Wall Street Journal article characterized you as 'hardball' and 'aggressive'. Have you mellowed at all since then?
Cabot: You'd have to ask the AFL-CIO. I'm still at the top of their hit list. I do have more gray hairs and I'm slightly more tolerant. But I'm as fervent in defending management as ever.