Union organizing is down as compared to previous years, but that does not mean employers should believe that support for labor unions has decreased. NLRB records indicate that the number of representation petitions filed in 2020 is dramatically down from each of the previous four years. This reduction in representation petitions can be attributed to the challenges for union organizers to personally meet with employees, as well as the fact that for many employees, their primary focus has been on retaining their jobs, looking for jobs, and keeping food on the table. Joining a union may not be the highest priority for many employees.
We are seeing a lot of signals that union activity will be strong once the vaccine is widely available and employers are able to return to their former production and service levels. Many employees question whether their employers are implementing adequate safety precautions or providing sufficient personal protective equipment. Some employees have experienced a layoff, are concerned about a layoff, or feel they should be given more flexibility for leaves of absence due to the illness or vulnerability of their family members. Employees may believe these problems can be addressed by electing a union to represent them. We have heard that some employees want their employers to advocate for social activism and be involved in championing organizations seeking to promote racial justice, such as Black Lives Matter. Again, they think a union will buoy these efforts.
What steps can an employer take to prepare for a possible increase in union activity? Obviously, positive employee relations and human resources practices will go a long way to persuade employees their employer respects and values their contributions and reduce interest in union representation. Other suggestions include:
- When the employer becomes aware of employee concerns, respond to them. Employees who feel ignored may be convinced that they need a third party to represent them.
- Supervisors should have a positive relationship with their employees. Treat subordinates with respect. Listen to their problems.
- Management should be visible and show an interest in their employees. Walk through the workplace and talk to employees. Welcome employees to come into their offices to talk to them. Employees need to feel their opinions matter.
- Train supervisors about what they can say about labor unions and union representation. When a union petition has not been filed, there is far more flexibility in what supervisors can say to employees to educate them that a union will not make the workplace any better and that a union cannot carry out most of its promises. Many supervisors feel uncomfortable when asked by employees about labor unions because they do not understand what they can legally say to employees.
- Be aware of the representation process when a petition is filed with the NLRB. There is a short time period between the date the petition is filed, and the election is held, so an employer should be ready to act once made aware a petition has been filed, rather than spending several days learning about the process.
- Supervisors should have their eyes and ears open so they can detect whether employees are interested in a union. Sometimes the petition is a complete surprise, but often, the supervisors are already aware of employee discontent. Sometimes this discontent can be addressed so that employees do not feel they need a third party to represent them.
Listen to the podcast of Phyllis Karasov, with assistance from her colleague Dan Ballintine, to learn about union organizing going on in the Twin Cities, as well as what to expect with union organizing when the pandemic is over.