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Look For the Union Label

by
Ken Gaffey
May 14, 2002

The days of organized labor seem to have eclipsed. We have grown and moved on. After all, we are a technology-driven, finance-driven, medical-driven and service-driven economy now. Manufacturing and heavy industry make up only a small segment of our vast GNP. We are far too well educated and sophisticated to be trade unionists. We prefer to keep our hands clean, working in respectable and “professional” occupations, our personal and professional success governed by our own merits and not collective bargaining. Of course, we had to accept a few changes. Like having our shirts and pants made by political prisoners in dictatorships’ “for profit” prison factories, or participating in a 10K walk to end some sort of world injustice, hunger, or disease wearing jogging clothes made by children in third world sweatshops (“Hey, 75? a day is real money in their village!”). But no way we would ever want to be involved with organized labor. Relax. This is not a morality piece on the evils of labor exploitation or a pointless history lesson on the labor movement. After all, this is a forum for HR and recruiting professionals. What do unions have to do with that? Plenty, actually. For as the saying goes, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And as I say ad nauseum, there is no “end” to anything in business, it’s all cyclical. The same is true for the labor movement. Unions may appear to be all but gone, but cycles have highs and lows ó and if a cycle is currently low, the next cycle will most likely be high. Consider this: Do you think that it is only HR and employment who are using the Internet for recruiting purposes? Speaking of relevance, have you ever wondered what working life would be like now had trade unions never existed?

  • Look at your paycheck. Now imagine it being about half that amount.
  • Health benefits? Never heard of them before unions.
  • Spend more time with your family? That’s hard to do with a 12-hour workday.
  • Better plan on working Saturday, the six-day workweek is alive and well.
  • Need time off to care for a sick child of family member? Sure! But don’t expect your job to be waiting for you when you get back.
  • Short- and long-term disability payments did not “just happen.”
  • Cancel that week in the mountains: no paid vacations.
  • Is the electrical wiring in your office or cubicle is exposed? OSHA may get the credit for workplace safety now, but unions pioneered it and did not use taxpayer dollars to do it.
  • Lunch should only take 15 minutes and if you need to go to the bathroom, do it before you get to work.
  • I don’t like you, you’re fired, “buh-bye.” Wrongful termination? Yeah, right!
  • Pension? Who do you think you are, an owner?
  • When you were young, you were more productive and cost us less money. Now we are replacing you with a younger, less expensive employee. Thanks for the 17 years, don’t let the door hit you in the…

My father was a non-union manager in a union business, and every time there was a strike he started looking at new car brochures. Why? Because every time the union won a new benefit or salary increase, the company was forced to offer increases to the managers. It’s tough to attract the best and brightest to management roles if they make less than those working for them. When I was getting ready to go to college, my dad was going to buy me a manual Smith-Corona typewriter. Then there was a strike. He upgraded me to an electric. (Hey, Smith-Corona was a big name back in the “Stone Age.”) It never ceases to amaze me how many HR professionals say the word “union” in much the same way they refer to the substance stuck on the bottom of their shoe. I realize that since we administer employee benefits, it is nice to pretend that we invented them. But we did not. It was the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s ó not “personnel” ó that began the evolution of those enhancements that transformed the American workplace from a laissez-faire world of “produce or perish” to a world of workers rights and workplace benefits. We may want to take credit for the expansion of those benefits and rights and take a quick bow for the increased franchise of those eligible, but we must never forget that our extended vision is the result of standing on the shoulders of men and women who came before us and risked their jobs, livelihood, and sometimes even their lives fighting company security guards, strike breakers and riot police in order to improve their lot, thereby influencing the workplace we have today. All we risk is carpal tunnel syndrome writing memos recommending that we increase dental coverage to include annual check-ups with only a $10 co-payment versus a $20 co-payment. Joe Lewis eat my dust ó assuming, of course, you know who Joe Lewis was. Also assuming you are an HR/employment person who actually tries to improve your employees’ situation and not merely “the capitalist running dog lackey of the ruling class elite.” (Sorry, a little Marxist-Leninism slipped out, always happens when I am wearing my “union hat.”) I am not saying all union activities or even intentions were always beneficial to either workers or employers. Certainly, there were abuses:

  • Organized crime infiltrated many large unions, laundering crime money through pension programs or walking away with the pension money outright.
  • Some work rules have been cited as wasteful and bordering on patronage.
  • Many union shops seemed to have little regard for the fiscal health of the company.
  • Protecting seniority over productivity as an absolute is not good business.
  • Many unions used closed shops to restrict the access of minorities and females to the workplace (then again, so did college-educated, professional, non-union “white collar” white males of the same era).

I agree that sometimes the actions unions took did not appear logical or even practical. The most popular story concerning “wasteful unions” is that of the “fireman” on diesel locomotives. When coal-fired locomotives were replaced by fuel-pump-driven diesels, there was no need for a fireman to shovel coal. But for 10 years, the fireman remained in the cab of every diesel, his job protected by the Railroad Workers Union. Those “firemen” are gone now. The end of waste, right? Maybe, but every time I read about another train collision due to a “missed signal” or “groggy” engineer resulting, I have to wonder if having that extra “pair of eyes” would have made a difference. Ironically, we all feel that having that extra pair of eyes in the cockpit of an airliner is worthwhile. Anybody ever take off on a commercial flight thinking, “Hey, if they eliminate the co-pilot, they could probably save $20 on the cost of tickets!” So airlines spend 50% more staffing the cockpit to keep passengers happy. The concern is not safety, it’s selling tickets. As the American workplace transitioned from blue collar to white collar, unions diminished in importance, impact, and regretfully, respect. In addition, many of the safeguards they sought to create for the American worker are either gone, or going. We owe unions a lot. But as I said, this is not just a piece about morality, history, or appreciation. Business is profit-motivated, and in a capitalist society, that’s how it should be. But we, as individuals, are driven by our need for personal security. We all suffer from the loss of the presence and influence of unions, no matter how insulated you feel based on your education, profession, and job title. Companies once considered layoffs and other headcount cutbacks as the last desperate act in a bad business environment. But workers in the new millennium realizes that their company might reduce size merely to increase short-term profit by .005% or to marginally enhance dividends. Or, after the hard work and creativity of workers has managed to make the company attractive, those same workers suddenly find themselves out of a job due to the acquisition of their company, or their company’s acquisition of another, creating redundancy (Thanks for making me rich folks!). Criminal? Of course not! Moral? Well, is business really the place you go to observe morality at it finest? But business is a two-way relationship. Rule #1 about unions: “No union has ever been successfully organized without the help of management. Without bad management or hurtful company policies, there would be no unions.” The first unions were organized because the common laborer did not feel the company respected them as individuals or allowed them their fair share of the profits they labored to create. In essence, this is the age-old contract between worker and owner, the mutual protection of financial and personal security in exchange for loyalty and hard work. As we continue in the current downcycle economically, and employees go to work each day wondering if they will get called into the HR office to get “their package,” you have to wonder: “Will collective bargaining begin to look good again?” Consider this:

  • Government and municipal workers are very heavily organized.
  • Unions are gaining ground every day in the medical field.
  • There are numerous high-tech and engineering firms that are unionized, and the list is growing.

Unions no longer have to rely on handbills and placards. Unions are on the Internet. Just because you don’t see organizers, that doesn’t mean they aren’t in your workplace ó or your cyberspace. How is your knowledge on labor laws as pertains to unions? Take this labor-practices pop quiz:

  1. You notice a labor organizer placing leaflets under the windshield wipers of employee cars in the parking lot of the building you rent. Can you stop him? Is it different if you own the parking lot? Do you allow sandwich shop employees to place menus under your employee windshield wipers? Does that make a difference?
  2. A labor organizer wants to place a flyer concerning membership in the IBEW on your company bulletin board. Do you have to let her do it? What if she requests that they be allowed to see the bulletin board? What if it is an employee asking at the request of a union?
  3. An employee asks to use a conference room to have a vote on organizing. Is it legal to say “no”? Is it smart? What if the employees want to meet on “their own time,” and not company time? Does it matter that you routinely allow the employee “bird watching” club to meet in your conference rooms after hours?
  4. If you hear of an employee working to organize the other workers, is it considered “retaliatory” to dismiss that person? What if all their efforts are off company property and not on company time?
  5. One of your “spies” (oh, come on, we all have them) informs you that the vote to organize was “yes.” Could you terminate the employees before the official announcement is made?
  6. If you are unionized, can you still hire non-union people? How long before they have to join?
  7. What is a closed shop? What is an open shop? (Hint: it’s not the exact opposite of a closed one.)
  8. Can you offer better salaries and benefits to your non-union employees?
  9. Will the same work rules apply from state-to-state in your other divisions? Can you be organized in one office and not in another?
  10. What are business agents and shop stewards?
  11. Can an employee resolve a union matter on company time?

You may want to do more than rent a copy of “Norma Rae” to answer these questions. Who in your organization is tasked with the job of being the “union expert?” If it is you, could you answer the above questions? Do you understand the potential consequences and fines if you violate the workers or the unions right to organize? Do you equally understand the limitations they operate under? Like all emergencies, you may not get a lot of advanced warning. Here are some sites you may want to visit to begin your education:

And here are some questions to start looking into to check out your potential exposure:

  • Based on your employee profile, are there specific unions targeting your industry or labor niche?
  • Are any of your competitors or associated corporate partners currently organized?
  • Do your workers, as a consequence of their everyday responsibilities, come into regular contact with organized or unionized shops?
  • Do union employees at other companies or service companies routinely enter your premises and communicate with you employees?
  • What is the overall morale of your workforce at this time? (Did you recently announce another division closure due to moving the work to Peru?)

Employees don’t vote to organize because of greed, anger, or disloyalty. They do it because they are afraid for their future. They do it because they no longer believe that they as individuals matter to the company. They seek protection in numbers. You have your “big guns”; they want some of their own, and collective bargaining is certainly a big one. Are you exposed to a high probability of potential unionization? Ask yourself this question: Does the average employee believe that their personal fate and security is part of the decision-making matrix in your organization? Answer honestly and prepare accordingly. There are three good reasons for HR/staffing professionals to be current on organized labor and their current companies vulnerability to be organized:

  1. Be proactive. As the project manager for all things that refer back to employees, it is one of those areas you need to stay on top of for your employer. Unions are like the first-aid kits in the hallway: it’s too late to think about them after the need arises.
  2. Web recruiting. This is the purview of HR/staffing, and since unions are making great use of it in their renewed recruiting efforts, it only makes sense that HR/Staffing be the “tip of the sword.” This is, after all, in the corporate “skill listing” our area of expertise. Set a thief to catch a thief.
  3. Leverage. Remember all those times you wanted to help the employees with a new perk or benefit and were shot down? Remember wishing that you had more leverage… such as reminding your tight-fisted CFO about union activities? (“Did I mention that the IBEW is in town next week setting up informational meetings? Now, let’s talk about your plan to lower benefits…”)

I did not write this piece to advocate or refute the existence of organized labor. They are part of business and so are we. But it would be unwise to allow yourself to be caught unaware of your obligations, responsibilities, restrictions and liabilities where unions are concerned as an HR/Staffing professional. We have become, in many instances, a “techno-yuppie” workforce, all too often unaware of things that do not begin with “www” or end with “.com”. It does not enhance your reputation to always appear caught by surprise in a crisis. Being unionized is not the end of the world. In many cases it can actually bring about those things through collective bargaining that have been denied employees using individual merit efforts. If unionization is inevitable, the success or failure of a company to sustain itself and its character going through unionization will be based on the proactive efforts of an educated and enlightened management team. Pssst…that’s your cue. You’re on. Have a great day recruiting.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

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