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How to respond when unions come a knockin’

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in Employment Law,Firing,Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,People Management

No union, no problem. Right? Not really. Even if your company isn't unionized now, you can't afford to be oblivious.

Just ask Amazon.com. In the thick of the holiday shopping crunch, three labor groups stepped up campaigns to organize its customer service and warehouse workers. That's why it's vital for your company to prepare for an organizing effort before it hits.

Labor on the rebound

Fewer than 10 percent of private sector employees belong to unions. That's a far cry from the 1950s, when unions claimed a third of the private work force. But labor is battling back. In 1999, unions had a banner year for membership increases, adding more than 260,000 members.

Unions are dramatically increasing organizing budgets and targeting industries, regions and even immigrants for membership.

Soon unions could have a new powerful weapon in their arsenal, your company's e-mail network. A case pending with the National Labor Relations Board is testing whether your company can bar union organizers from using your e-mail system for organizing. Labor's argument: The computer network is today's water cooler and should be considered the type of workspace that unions are typically allowed access to, like the company bulletin board.

Issue no invitation

Strategies for keeping your workplace union-free start with this basic advice: Treat your employees fairly.

Satisfied workers don't have a reason to fork over part of their pay for someone else to represent them. Even employees taking home a lot of cash will favor a union if their pay is generated from low wages coupled with too much overtime.

Beyond a decent paycheck, keep communication open. Provide avenues for workers to address complaints, such as alternative dispute resolution systems.

Don't pass the 'salt'

What happens when you run into an applicant wearing a union T-shirt and a union button who proudly states his union membership on the application? Your knee-jerk reaction may be to avoid that applicant like the plague. Don't do it. You'll run smack into an unfair labor practices charge.

Labor has increasingly used this tactic of paying organizers to get jobs with targeted employers. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) makes it illegal for you to discriminate against these so-called "salts" in hiring, firing or other terms of employment. That's why it's best to evaluate that applicant using the same criteria as others.

Hold your tongue

The actions you might be most tempted to take during an organizing campaign are often the ones that run afoul of the NLRA. Because the law protects workers' rights to organize:

  • Don't bar workers from wearing union insignia or talking about the union during nonworking hours, including breaks.
  • Don't discriminate against employees who participate in union campaigns. This does not mean that you have to handle union organizers with kid gloves; just be evenhanded.
  • Don't threaten layoffs, demotions or other consequences based on a worker's support of the union. On the flip side, you also can't tempt employees to abandon the union with increases in wages or benefits.

The law even limits your ability to take a straw poll gauging the level of pro-union sentiment among your workers.

Take positive action

You aren't completely hamstrung. The NLRA also allows you to get your message out. In addition to correcting any misleading statements from union organizers, you can state the company's position in meetings (not in a supervisor's office) and literature mailed to workers' homes.

Threatening to shut down a plant if it is unionized is forbidden, but it is not illegal to state facts, such as pointing out another company whose plant closed after the union came in.

You can remind workers of the good features your company offers and the disadvantages of belonging to a union.

While your managers should be trained to respond to union organizing efforts, be careful where you store your battle plans. Amazon put advice for managers and reasons why unions are not desirable on its internal Web site. A union supporter who wanted to embarrass the company turned over a copy to The New York Times.

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