Viewpoint: Talk Intelligently About Union Organizing

By Marie LaMarche, SHRM-SCP, and Phillip Wilson Jul 12, 2016
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Strategize about union talking points.

"What do you think about unions?"

Do you dread this question? Join the club. Leaders avoid talking about unions. It's a hot-button topic like religion or politics that can bring emotions to the boiling point. Not only that, it is also a legal minefield. Except that, in this minefield, the National Labor Relations Board keeps changing where the mines are hidden! Bottom line: Managers often struggle with how to answer questions about unions.

Many leaders don't know what to say about unions because they haven't really thought much about them. This isn't that surprising. After all, unions represent fewer than 1 in 10 private-sector workers today, so many people don't understand why a union coming into a company is a big deal.

Leaders who give unions any thought at all just hope the subject never comes up. That's a bad strategy. As human resource professionals, it is our job to help leaders get over their fear of talking about unions and make them comfortable explaining why unions aren't in the best interest of most companies or employees today.

Why aren't unions in the best interest of companies and employees? A big part of it is cost and flexibility. Unionized companies have higher administration costs. Solving problems through the back-and-forth negotiation process is slow and inefficient. Labor contracts tend to reduce management flexibility and innovation. They often create an "us vs. them" attitude between represented employees and management. (After all, unions have to justify the money they collect from members.) This can reduce morale and teamwork.

Since most workers and managers know nothing about how unions work, it is up to us to provide this information. Otherwise, employees may support or bring in a union based on a "sales pitch" that only tells half the story.

But what should managers say? And how can we as HR professionals help managers and other leaders get comfortable handling these conversations without fear of legal missteps and in a way that connects with co-workers?

Here are three quick tips to help HR prepare leaders to talk about unions:

Help leaders develop an elevator speech. One of the most helpful things an HR leader can do is help supervisors practice a quick version of why the company (and, more important, the leader personally) prefers to deal directly with co-workers. There are lots of variations of this speech; the most important thing is for the leader to make it his or her own. A good starting point is to say something like "I prefer to deal with you as an individual, to listen to your problems and resolve your concerns on an individual basis without having to negotiate with some outside party like a union. But this may be impossible if a union becomes involved. I also like to recognize you for your individual contributions and reward you for your own performance, but union contracts often take away this flexibility."

Make sure leaders are constantly "selling" the company. There is a saying in sales that it is a lot easier to keep a customer than to get a new one. How well do your supervisors keep co-workers "sold" on your company? Highlight the great benefits, flexible work arrangements, compensation, open-door policies and growth opportunities. It is much easier for leaders to remind employees of the competitive pay and benefits or your commitment to treating all employees with respect and dignity before you have a problem. Don't wait until the "boom event" of an active organizing campaign to remind people of the benefits they enjoy today.

Teach leaders to "run to the smoke." It is a good idea to train leaders on the basics of union organizing (for example, how unions organize, the ins and outs of union cards, the TIPS guidelines). The most important thing you can teach leaders is to notice and respond to changes in behavior at work. Most leaders do not think twice about an increase in off-hour employee "get-togethers" or a change in the nature or tone of employee questions or complaints. These are some of the true early warning signs of a problem that could spin out of control into a union-organizing campaign.

Teach leaders to look for signs that employees are unhappy or disengaged. Help them understand how to interact with employees who appear frustrated. We call this "running to the smoke" and looking for issues way before they turn into a major problem. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

HR professionals play a vital role in helping a company create a positive work environment where employees choose to work directly with their leaders. The good news is that supporting leaders with tools and practicing how to deal with early warning signs isn't just a way to keep unions out of your company. These leadership practices create a solid employee relations culture that helps a company thrive.

Marie LaMarche, SHRM-SCP, and Phillip Wilson are members of the Society for Human Resource Management Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel. LaMarche is division director of labor relations at CHI Franciscan Health in Tacoma, Wash. ​Wilson is president and general counsel with the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.

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