Although the number of union representation elections has decreased slightly, unions seem to be winning over half of those elections that are conducted. Based on information published by the Bureau of National Affairs, unions in the United States have steadily improved their win rate from 48.2 percent in 1996 to 57.3 percent through the first six months of 2003.
Unions have become more focused in their organizational efforts, pooling their resources to target what they perceive to be profitable industries. Hospitals and nursing homes are one prime example of an industry that is besieged with union organization activity. In the traditional heavy industry, given the movement of steel operations overseas, the polymer industry is increasingly coming under the union organization microscope. In my opinion, given its current growth, success and its dynamic future, the plastics products industry may easily become a target for union organization, similar to the steel industry in the 21st century.
Even with the most enlightened personnel policies, management will face problems when a union representative knocks on your door. The employer typically is on the defensive and frequently at a loss as to know what it can and cannot do. Every specific situation will call for measures suited to a particular circumstance for best results, but there are a number of typical problems which arise in nearly every instance. Here are a few things every employer in the polymer industry should know when faced with a union organizational campaign.
You own your property and can determine who comes on it. A nonemployee union representative does not have any legal right to demand to enter your company to talk to your employees. This is true even if you have allowed the Red Cross or other charitable organizations to do so.
You do not have to talk to an outside union representative. An outside union representative may ask you for an opportunity to discuss alleged complaints regarding employee grievances. You are not required to comply with the union's request until and unless it becomes the designated representative of your employees.
You can restrict union organization activity by your employees on company time and on company property. For example, you can limit the distribution of pro-union literature by your employees to nonwork areas on nonwork time.
You can require employees to attend a meeting to listen to your views about why you do not think a union is appropriate for your company.
You can limit bulletin board postings to company-related matters. This becomes trickier if you have allowed employees to use the bulletin boards for noncompany related matters in the past.
You can demand an election even though a union representative demands recognition from you alleging that he has signed authorization cards from the majority of your employees. In fact, when you are presented with signed union authorization cards, you can refuse to look at them and request that the union organizer file a petition for a representation election.
You can have individual conversations with employees or small group meetings informing them that you are against the union and encouraging them to vote against it. But when dealing with employees about union organizational activity, follow the TIPS rule.
T - Do not Threaten employees.
I - Do not Interrogate employees about their union sympathies.
P - Do not make any Promises of increased wages or benefits or other privileges in exchange for an employee voting against the union.
S - Do not engage in Surveillance about employee union activity on or off the work site.
You do not need to give union organizers information about your employees. Until the union becomes the designated bargaining agent for your employees, you have no legal obligation to provide its representatives with any such information.
You do not have to be neutral in a union organization campaign. Many union organizers ask the company to agree to neutrality while they attempt to organize employees. You do not have to agree to neutrality and your failure to do so is not unreasonable.
Remember that the only promise the union can guarantee is to be the voice of your employees. Although it can promise employees better wages, benefits, and working conditions, you ultimately have to agree to those concessions. But a union can keep its promise to be the employees' voice if you and your supervisory staff fail to communicate with your employees and listen to their concerns.
Union negotiations do not have to start with what the employees already have and just add more. You can make it clear to the employees that negotiations is a give-and-take process. They assume a calculated risk of losing something in the give and take of the negotiations dynamic.
What are the common symptoms of a union organization campaign? What should you look for to determine if a union is attempting to organize your employees? Here are a few signs of typical union organizational activity:
* The nature of employee complaints and their frequency increase.
* Avoidance of supervision - employees clam up.
* Employees are in work areas that they normally do not visit.
* A significant number of policy inquiries, particularly on pay, benefits and discipline.
* News items placed on bulletin boards about union settlements and local companies or other industries.
* Cartoons or graffiti that direct humorous hostility toward the company, management or supervision.
* An unusual interest on the part of the vendors and subcontractors in communicating with employees.
* Strangers appear and linger upon the company premises or in work areas.
* Employees adopt a new, technical vocabulary that includes such phrases as ``protected activity,'' ``unfair labor practices,'' and ``demands for recognition.''
* Union authorization cards, handbills, or leaflets appear on the premises or in the parking areas.
* Any factor that appears to be out of the ordinary and seems to be separating management from the workforce.
A union organization campaign is serious business. And many supervisors do not realize until it is too late that unions are competing for their jobs. In other words, prior to unionization, the supervisor is the employees' representative and link to the management of the company. When the union gets in, and the union representatives and stewards take over the representational responsibilities, supervisors often become the enemy and many become marginalized. Effective supervisor training is necessary to maintain a union-free environment. And knowledge is power. Knowing your rights and responsibilities is critical in dealing with an attempt to organize your company.
Thomas J. Wiencek is chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Brouse McDowell, an Akron, Ohio, law firm.