New Unionizing Troubles

The first half of 1994 saw more than 3,000 strikes and 2,405 union representation petitions -- dramatic evidence of the new union activism that we first warned of in the July 15. 1993 issue of Boardroom, and then expanded on in the March 1, 1994 issue.

The unions are now using an increasing number of young, well-educated minority organizers who are prepared to assist workers in all aspects of life, nor just workplace issues.

Whether your company is union-free...facing an organizing attempt...or trying to deal with a union that is already in place, it's important to recognize that the increasing level of employee frustration and insecurity today is creating a very real threat to efficiency and workplace morale. Latest challenges for business:

  • The National Labor Relations

    Board under the Clinton administration, is now more supportive of union/employee rights than has been the case for the past 12 years under Reagan and Bush.

  • There have even been recent cases of unions pushing for recognition without an election. Thiswas a popular tactic before Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers...and it is now reemerging.

    WHAT TO DO

  • Prepare now to head off union activity. If there is a sudden push for elections you won't have much time to correct the company's image in the eyes of employees. Start by trying to understand the real frustration felt by workers. There are problems, of course, with workers who have seen many of their peers laid off in down-sizing and restructuring efforts. Those efforts are still in progress in many US companies.

  • Take the initiative. Don't wait for an outbreak of trouble. Take an aggressive stance now toward more effective and timely communications with employees.

  • Bring in outside lawyers or consultants to train the company's employees in better communications and to help them solve real-life problems.

  • Example: We are now working with companies to educate employees on how to deal with issues of violence.

  • Use new tools, such as Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR), to remove the contention that can arise between bosses and subordinates.

  • Set up a complaint resolution system with an appeals process. This can be done either inside the company, where there might be a provision for peer review and/or a hearing by the CEO, or outside the company, using impartial arbitration and mediation services such as the American Arbitration Association or the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. There also are a number of private mediation services.

    Important: Make it clear whether these services have only mediation powers -- or final decision powers. A landmark Supreme Court case (Gilmer vs. Interstate/Johnson Corp., 111SC 1647, 1991) has established that an ADR providing for binding arbitration of an employer/employee dispute was final and could even preclude the employee from bringing other court actions if the employee had previously agreed, in writing, to be bound by the decision.

    TEAMS CAN BE TRICKY

    Many companies are having success using work teams of various kinds to improve quality and productivity.

    These can be particularly effective in nonunion companies to reduce the incentive to organize. Even in unionized companies they are fine, as long as they avoid getting into questions of hours, wages or working conditions -- legally the province of unions. In some companies, there is a union representa-tive on every team who can convey such problems back to the union for resolution.

    Recognize that there is a lot more ag-gravation in the workplace than ever be-fore, and be sure that teams are per-ceived as parts of the same wheel. You want the employees to feel that a team is their team, not just the company's team. This may require special education to bridge various aspects of the company's labor program, such as team-building, training or suggestion awards, and ex-plain how they relate to each other.

    In all cases be sure to assign accountability and responsibility, along with time frames for completion. Ask for feedback from employees to get reinforcement and commitment to team goals. Make use of employee surveys to find out how sentiment is running.

    UNDERSTAND THE UNION

    It is official policy at the AFL-CIO today to give at least lip service to a more cooperative stance, to help US companies become more globally competitive.

    In reality, much depends on the local union leaders, many of whom still espouse the adversarial thinking of the 1930s and the 1960s. Some-times these local officials -- who want to be reelected (just like members of Congress) -- must adopt a more mili-tant stance in response to their frus-trated constituency.

    Defensive strategy: As with any re-lationship, it is useful to develop an ongoing dialogue with the union. Both parties need to be openly involved in the process for mutual advantage. This doesn't mean management must invite the union into the boardroom, but the company should make a com-mitment to provide enough information to the union so that it can educate and control its members.

    Aim: To build respect and credibility between the two sides. Be prepared to be challenged on what you do, if it turns out to be different from what you say.

    Important: The two sides don't always have to agree. You can agree to disagree, preferably without being disagreeable, handling disputes in as po-litely a way as possible.

    Example: Making off-the-record con-versations public after a negotiation is a good way to kill off any trust that has been built in the relationship.

    Bottom line: Be reasonable and willing to listen, but never turn over the reins to the union. Do what you have to do to run the business.

    Important: Come up with a plan as to how you could continue to operate the business during a strike.

    Don't turn down union demands without due consideration. Wherever possible, try to seek acceptable middle ground. But when you have to say no-out of conviction that you are doing what is right for the long-term interests of the company and its em-ployees-stand tall and do it.

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