On June 21, the NLRB published the proposed changes it wants in rules governing union representation elections. When adopted, these rules will make the jobs of union organizers easier by handcuffing management and fast-tracking representation elections in which a company's employees vote whether or not they wish to unionize.
Following the defeat in Congress of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have allowed "card check unionization" and eliminated nearly all representation elections, union leaders are trying a different way to reach their easy organizing goals. They know "if you can't legislate, regulate." And the NLRB regulates labor relations in America.
The NLRB's proposed rule changes upend the "level playing field" standard it has traditionally used to balance the oft-conflicting interests of unions, employers, and employees. The new rules would:
- Require management to turn over to the NLRB the names, job titles, shifts, phone numbers, home addresses, and e-mail addresses of all employees within two days of any union petition;
- Reduce significantly the time limits of election campaigns, cutting management's chance to tell "its side of the story." Experts predict election campaigns would be cut to less than 20 days from the average of 51 days achieved in 2008 (the most current data available);
- Restrict management's "free speech rights" by hobbling its ability to address issues and inform employees of pros and cons of unionization during its campaign;
- Defer challenges to voter eligibility until after the election;
- Defer all other campaign objections until the election vote is completed.
The NLRB has already issued rules requiring employers to post notices informing employees of their right to unionize, including the "advantages" of unions. It may also be planning to make permanent the restrictions on management that now apply only after a union files a petition. Time will tell.
The NLRB is also moving in other new directions, as indicated by its actions taken against the Boeing Company. The board, following the ideas of its Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon, is sending signals to American industry about "nipping in the bud" any possible labor relations violations on the part of corporations.
Boeing has endured one long white-collar and four lengthy blue-collar strikes in its Pacific Northwest facilities since 1989. Needing a second assembly line to fulfill the hundreds of orders for its popular new 787 Dreamliner aircraft, Boeing Chairman and CEO W. James McNerney, Jr., said his company would locate its new facility in North Charleston, S.C., to reduce Boeing's vulnerability to delivery disruptions caused by work stoppages. The International Association of Machinists, which represents Boeing's blue-collar workers in Washington and Oregon, claimed Boeing's move was in retaliation for its past strikes, a protected activity, and hence, an unfair labor practice. The NLRB agreed, even though no jobs have been lost in Washington, and is pursuing these charges vigorously. No one knows the ultimate result, but experts predict it will probably be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court several years from now. Until the matter is finally resolved, the immediate result is to chill the interest of unionized companies in building new facilities in right-to-work states like South Carolina, where the Boeing facility opened in June 2011 with 1,000 employees.
What Is the National Labor Relations Act?
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) governs the country's labor relations by secret ballot elections in a system of industrial democracy. The NLRA gives employees the right to vote whether they want to be represented by a union or not.
The NLRA is administered by the National Labor Relations Board, a quasi-judicial federal agency. Appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, its members decide the detailed rules governing union and management behavior and how elections are conducted. Despite criticisms by labor and management, it has done a pretty good job over the years - those who complain have almost invariably lost their elections.
Today, unions decry the current rules governing elections despite the fact that they now win nearly 64 percent of all representation elections (see accompanying chart). Unions claim the law is cumbersome, bureaucratic, and slow. They argue companies have unfair "advantages," most notably, the right to give "captive audience" speeches to employees on paid time in order to present management's views. Unions avoid saying they have the right to make home visits to employees to promote their claims, something now denied to management under NLRB rules.
Three Steps Management Can Use to Prepare
Astute managers realize the best way to avoid election hassles - and the chance of losing - is to treat their employees fairly so that they don't want a union. The best way to do this is to identify and eliminate the irritants that cause employees to seek out unions in the first place. Experts know that money is not the real reason employees seek out unions. Rather, workers vote for unions because they believe they are not being treated fairly, openly, and honestly, i.e., without partiality or favoritism. This is the core issue that determines whether or not a work force will vote for a union.
The first step to avoid elections is to conduct an employee audit to determine worker sentiment, i.e., test the temperature on the plant floor - out by the four-slides in spring makers, next to the molding machines in automotive trim plants, on the pour decks in gray iron foundries, on the chuck lines in meat packers' fab areas, or by the thread rollers in screw and bolt making facilities.
Employee attitudes cannot be accurately assessed with the simple paper-and-pencil employee audits many attorneys recommend. Those surveys rarely uncover the nuances of employee thinking, especially those of workers from different backgrounds and cultures.
The best way to understand employee attitudes is through face-to-face interviews conducted by expert outside interviewers, because workers speak more openly to an outsider than to any manager for fear of retribution. Also, the ability to discern what employees actually mean by what they say is critical, takes a good deal of experience, and requires knowledge of modern manufacturing practices. After experts uncover employees' level of satisfaction or discontent - and the reasons behind these sentiments - management can then address employees' concerns and eliminate the causes of negative worker attitudes.
This often requires two subsequent efforts. The first is supervisory training tailored to the specific problems of a particular company. Canned training from the Internet is inexpensive - and usually ineffective (see "How To Train Across Cultures," Industrial Management, November 2010). The second is developing a compensation system that encourages productivity and employee cooperation while reinforcing the natural employee/employer bond. Together, these efforts improve a company's marketplace competitiveness, while rendering its employees virtually impervious to the promises of union organizers.
It is better to avoid an election entirely rather than merely winning one. Don't you agree?