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Keeping the Workplace Union-Free

A recent survey of manufacturing executives reveals who loses to unions - and why.

Oct/Nov 09
Chart 1.How Unions Did. Percent of Union Victories FY 2006, FY 2007, FY 2008
Chart 1.How Unions Did. Percent of Union Victories FY 2006, FY 2007, FY 2008
Who loses the most representation elections to unions?
According to the latest survey of 285 manufacturers by Imberman and DeForest, Inc., companies surprised by union "stealth" petitions for representation elections lose a far higher percentage of their votes than do companies that were aware of pre-petition union-organizing efforts. The survey also found that smaller companies lose a greater percentage of all elections than do larger ones, regardless of whether they were aware of pre-petition union activity.

The findings are critical, considering the new labor legislation currently before Congress. The controversial "card check unionization" provision of the Employee Free Choice Act that eliminates secret ballot elections may be dropped. But new "compromises" now offered by union-backed legislators are almost as bad.

These "compromises" call for "quickie" elections to be held within 5 to 10 days of a union petition. During that brief period, the new law eliminates and/or severely restricts management's ability to inform employees about the negatives of unions. The results of any such election are virtually preordained. Companies need to identify and remove potential causes of employee discontent before a union appears, if they wish to avoid such one-sided contests and remain union-free.

The survey focused on companies having 1,257 representation elections within the past three years in the five Great Lakes States (IL, IN, MI, OH, and WI) that comprise America's industrial heartland. Of those elections, unions won 676, or 53.8 percent, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The survey included interviews with key executives of 116 companies that won their elections, and 169 that lost their votes.

Survey results suggest two key findings and six lessons. All should be heeded by companies that want to remain nonunion.

Finding: Union "stealth" petitions were petitions about which companies knew nothing until a union filed its petition with the NRLB. These companies said they were totally unaware of any pre-petition union-organizing activities. Unions won a greater percent of these elections than they did in companies whose managements knew of pre-petition union activity. This holds true for companies in all size ranges.

Lesson 1: "Stealth" petitions upend the claims of many executives who said their internal employee communications were "good," and who touted their open-door policies ".really encouraged employees to sit down and talk out their problems." Unfortunately, many well-meaning open-door policies just don't work; employees justifiably fear supervisory retribution when they voice their true concerns. Consequently, these executives were surprised by the "stealth" petitions because they had no hint of previous union card-signing efforts at their facilities. Survey results suggest that companies wishing to remain nonunion need to "tune into the grape vine" and know what their employees are saying.and doing.

Lesson 2: A growing awareness of this need has caused many of America's manufacturers to ask a third party to come in to "listen" to employees, so that the workers can safely voice their concerns. This technique capitalizes on the fact that employees will speak far more openly to an outsider than to any member of management. Once they speak to an outsider, employees soon realize they have nothing to fear by voicing their concerns, and management can respond accordingly.

Finding: Unions win a greater percent of representation elections in smaller companies than they do in bigger ones. For example, companies with fewer than 50 employees won only 34.46 percent of their elections, compared to a win rate of 41.75 percent for companies with more than 50 employees.

Lesson 3: This finding upsets the belief of many well-meaning executives that they have a "family" feeling in their organizations. Many executives surveyed were proud of the fact they knew most of their employees by name and considered them "family." The statistics suggest these executives often misled themselves, believing what they wanted to believe, perhaps because of their ineffective open-door policies. As one executive of a Cleveland metalworking company said, "I didn't think my employees would ever want a union, not now, not in a million years."

Lesson 4: Many executives confuse good intentions with real action. A desire for good employee communications is no substitute for actually implementing an effective two-way communications program - upward initially from employees, and then downward in response from management. Since most employees seek out unions due to perceptions of favoritism and unfair treatment by first-line supervisors, relying on the comments of the few brave employees who may vent their concerns is no substitute for using an outside third party to listen as employees discuss their concerns honestly, without fear of retribution. Near the top of the list for executives wishing to create a harmonious, productive, union-free working environment is finding an effective way for employees to resolve the issues that bother them.

Lesson 5: One reason smaller companies lost such a high percentage of their elections was because their employees rebelled over the lack of impartial work rules. First-line supervisors often ignored attendance and overtime policies in the rush to get out production, while senior management looked the other way. Some companies had generic rules, often just pulled from the Internet. In many cases, the rules did not give proper weight to seniority, especially in companies with many unskilled and semiskilled workers - "We avoid seniority. It's just a union term," one Illinois executive said.

Lesson 6: Executives at nonunion companies expressed a great deal of concern about the pending Employee Free Choice Act. The original version abolished secret-ballot elections if a union obtains "authorization cards" from a majority of a company's employees, ending a company's opportunity to campaign against a union. Opposition to this has been so great that unions have proposed "compromise" versions. These compromises are almost as bad; they call for "quickie" elections within 5 to 10 days after a petition is filed, wide union access to employees at in the worksite, and severe restrictions on an employer's ability to campaign. With almost no time for a company to present more than the most limited case for voting NO in a quickie election, virtually all union drives will become "stealth" campaigns.

Survey results and NLRB statistics all suggest that executives of American manufacturers who wish to stay union-free need to make sure their shop-floor work rules are fair.and followed, find an effective method to let employees speak freely and openly about their concerns, and show a genuine willingness to listen to employee concerns and take them into account. If a company won't do that for its employees, then a union will.

Note: For more information, contact the author. at or 847/733-0071

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