Viewpoint: How to Spot a Union Ambush

Seemingly innocuous behavior by employees may signal union organizing

By F. Beau Howard March 9, 2016

Now that the National Labor Relations Board’s “ambush” election rule is in effect, employers should proactively respond to early warning signs of union activity. Some of the most common warning signs are listed below.

Low Morale

Studies show that actively engaged employees are less likely to join unions. According to Gallup, when employees are engaged, they become “involved in and enthusiastic about their work. They are more productive, innovative, inclusive and aligned with the objectives of the overall organization.”

Gallup reports that employees are more engaged when, for example, they know what is expected of them at work, they are encouraged to develop and grow, they receive recognition for their successes, they find their jobs meaningful, and they feel that the employer values their opinions.

Employers should periodically analyze whether their employees are actively engaged, productive and happy. If they are not, the employer must work to fix the problem. Failure to do so is like greasing the skids for a successful union campaign.

Increased Complaints

Unions rely upon dissatisfied employees. Thus, a common union tactic is to sow discord about wages, benefits and management. Simultaneously, the union will sell itself as a means to protect employee interests, decrease workloads and increase compensation. When this occurs, employees—especially those designated as “leaders” by the union—are often emboldened to speak out against perceived injustices.

Increased Questions About Policies, Wages and Benefits

To make its case to the employees, the union must first gather information about the employer’s policies, compensation and benefits. An abnormally high number of employee requests for copies of their contracts, job descriptions or benefits information, or copies of the handbook, suggests a coordinated effort by a union to gather information, from which the union will cherry-pick policies, contracts and benefits and claim that they think these are unfair.

Employees Huddle Frequently, but Become Silent Around Supervisors

Groups of employees huddled and whispering in the hallways suggests the existence of a problem. If the employees become immediately silent when a supervisor approaches, the problem is all but confirmed. While the employees may or may not be discussing unionization, the employer should recognize this behavior for what it is and endeavor to regain their support.

Friendly Employees Become Distant

When a union campaign is underway, once-friendly employees may become distant. This occurs because unions instruct employees to keep the campaign secret, or to avoid unnecessary conversations with management. Alternatively, employees may feel conflicted or guilty about their union activities. Regardless, sudden silence in the presence of management indicates union activity.

Heated Discussions and the Development of New Relationships

Because a union campaign is controversial, it will often cause an increase in heated discussions among employees. It will also prompt employees to form new relationships along the lines of their union interests. While an employer cannot conduct surveillance on its employees without violating the National Labor Relations Act, it should be generally aware of the cliques within the company so that it can take note of any sudden reorganization.

Sudden Shifts in Popularity

Every company has a few popular employees. When a new leader suddenly emerges, he or she may be a union organizer. This person may be given special attention because the individual is the point of contact with the union. It is particularly suspicious when a newly hired employee immediately assumes an informal leadership role; this person could be a salt—someone employed in a job to organize a union.

A New Vocabulary Emerges

When a union appears, it comes with new language. If employees suddenly begin using words like job security, seniority, grievance, fair treatment, dignity, respect, past practice, arbitration, bumping, job bidding, minimum wage and prevailing wage, they quite possibly have been meeting with a union.

Prolonged Meal and Rest Breaks

A union campaign requires time and organization, and unfortunately tends to occur at work. In the beginning, there will be a flurry of activity, debate and discussion during meal and rest breaks. Involved employees may be delayed in returning to work, and some may request to adjust their schedules to coordinate break times with other pro-union employees. Employers should take note of these issues, as they suggest union activity.

Employees Congregating After Hours

Employees may congregate with union representatives in the parking lot or other common spaces after hours. They may be organizing, spreading information or recruiting employees who work alternative shifts.

Employees Exchanging Paperwork

The goal of a union campaign is for 30 percent of the employees to sign union authorization cards. This allows the union to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The discovery of union cards onsite is a clear indication of union activity. Short of that, the exchange of any documentation among employees is suspicious, particularly if they attempt to do so in secret. Similarly, the sight of an employee quietly collecting contact information of co-workers suggests union activity.

What Employers Should Do Even Before Observing Any Warning Signs

While an employer should be familiar with these warning signs, it should not wait to discover one before taking action. The ambush will already be afoot. To quote Sun Tzu, “The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” Thus, the employer should already be conducting a counter-campaign against any possible union organization, fortifying its position through smart management with the goal of increasing employee engagement. This will show the employees the benefits of an open shop. If an employer does this successfully, when a union comes, the union might mount a campaign but an ambush will be impossible.

F. Beau Howard is an attorney in the Employment and Labor Group at Chamberlain Hrdlicka in Atlanta. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of SHRM.


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