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Beware managers who participate in drive to unionize workers

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

When union-organizing efforts target a business, managers usually sit on the sidelines. But managers may have sympathies with either side, and their actions could cause problems for either the employer or the union. Your best bet is to rely on professional negotiators and labor counsel.

Pro-union managers

The Coastal Florida Public Employees Association attempted to organize the Brevard County Tax Collector’s office. Several managers from the office attended a union meeting and took union authorization cards. A union official expressed doubts at the meeting that the managers could participate in the organizing effort.

Nevertheless, the managers held a subsequent meeting where they discussed the organizing effort and the merits of union representation. They distributed union authorization cards to employees, obtained several signatures and returned the cards to union officials. The union officials used the cards in the organizing effort.

That’s when the county filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the Florida Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). The county said managers used undue influence on subordinates to convince them to sign the cards.

The PERC heard the case and decided the union did nothing wrong. In its decision, the PERC noted that union members did not direct the managers’ actions and even expressed doubts about the managers participating in the process at all. When presented with the signed authorization cards, the union took the proper steps in authenticating the signatures. It was not required to do more.

Coping with organizing efforts

Supervisors’ opinions of union representation may run the gamut. As the Brevard case makes clear, employers certainly cannot rely on managers to be anti-union. Further, both Florida and federal laws prohibit employers from retaliating against any employee for participating in a union-organizing effort.

But supervisors can cause problems for employers when they take a position on organizing for either side. They hold sway over employees, and agreeing or disagreeing with the “boss” is always part of the workplace calculus.

But employers can get into trouble when it appears that supervisors are acting on their behalf in attempting to block union authorization.

Like the union in this case, an employer whose managers may be perceived to be coercing employees through management can run afoul of both Florida law and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). On the other hand, the NLRA protects a wide variety of employee speech. Supervisors, like any employee, are free to discuss workplace conditions, policies and employer practices. Employers that take action against employees for criticizing company policies or practices may violate the NLRA.

Labor-relations tightrope

Clearly, employers walk a tightrope. An employer should explain to its supervisors that they may express their own opinions about union-organizing efforts, but the employer should make clear to the employees that the opinions expressed are personal ones and not necessarily the organization’s position. Further, employees should understand they are free to accept or reject union representation without fear of retaliation from supervisors or the employer.

Employers are free to present their sides of the argument, but company representatives should clearly identify themselves when they are speaking for the company. Note, however, that employers can easily run into trouble here. Claiming that wages will go down or jobs will be cut can be seen as threats that violate the NLRA.

Advice: The best approach is to make a positive argument based on current conditions rather than dire warnings about a post-union certification world.

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