What to Know About Unionizing in America

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A great American songwriter and singer once wrote “Picket lines and picket signs, don’t brutally punish me, talk to me so you can see what’s going on…” -Marvin Gaye, 1971

As widely reported in the mainstream media, workers at a large Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, recently voted to unionize. This is the first time a union has won an election at an Amazon factory. On Friday, April 8, 2022, Amazon filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which, if successful, could overturn the vote for the union. What has been less widely reported and should concern our readers is that the union that won the election was not one of the major labor unions. Rather, the Victors are an independent union created by two former warehouse workers. How these two guys got away with it and what they plan to do next should be carefully considered by any employer worried about attempts at union organizing at their company.

The union victory at Amazon follows a string of successful union elections at various Starbucks stores in Buffalo and other New York locations. Our previous report on unionization at Starbucks can be found here. These elections are of such concern to the board that former CEO Howard Schultz, who “made the company a global power,” has returned to the company to deal with the situation. Unlike Amazon workers, the Starbucks Workers United Workers Union is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”), although this affiliation is somewhat hidden to give the impression that, like the Amazon union, it is This is a grassroots effort. The SEIU claims membership of nearly 2 million workers, making it one of the largest unions in the country. Presumably the SEIU provides significant financial support to continue unionization at Starbucks.

At the same time, the NLRB has just issued a press release indicating that between October 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, applications for union representation filed with the NLRB increased by 57% compared to the first half of the year. fiscal year 2021. As noted in the press release, President Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 calls for a 16% increase in funding for the NLRB.

This increase in union activity follows a two-year pandemic and a time of transforming labor markets and what has been called “the great resignation”. As another famous songwriter wrote, “There’s something going on here. It’s not exactly clear. Is it COVID? Is it a change in employee attitude towards work/life balance? Is it a social revolution? The answers may not be known for some time, but in the meantime, here are some recommendations:

  • Carefully study the methods and tactics used in these recent successful organizing campaigns. Just like in politics, social media has transformed how employees interact with each other and how groups wishing to unionize a workplace can effectively spread their message.

  • Analyze how your company communicates with your employees. Is your business stuck in the past using only one-way messaging via memos on message boards and captive audience speeches? What is your company doing to understand the real concerns of your employees? Is your company effectively using social media to get its message across before workers start organizing? For more on this topic, check out this week’s companion article.

  • Train your supervisors, train your supervisors, train your supervisors; this cannot be said enough! First- and second-level supervisors are often the weakest link in a company’s union avoidance programs. Are your supervisors good at listening and understanding the real concerns of their workers? Do they know how to effectively communicate the company’s message in a way that will instill confidence in employees that they will decide they don’t need a union?

The problems are complex and the answers difficult to find. However, employers who don’t see “what’s going on” may be faced with their own “picket lines and picket boards.”

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