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Shootout at the Labor Relations Corral

June 29, 2011

Tombstone (1993), Buena Vista Pictures

Regardless of which side of the table you’re on (pro-company or pro-union) the labor/employee relations landscape is changing and everyone must look hard at what those changes mean on an individual and organizational level.

Business conditions have changed dramatically over the past few years with regard to the economy, governmental compliance, international trade and labor relations. The intersection of domestic and global influences have cumulatively created the perfect conditions for major overhauls of how organizations, employees and unions function within the scope of governmental regulations regarding employment. Domestically, manufacturing in the U.S. has declined over the past decades and the recovery of the industrial sector remains a frequent topic of debate. Globally, less-expensive labor sources from China, Mexico, and South Korea (to name a few), and have contributed heavily to the erosion of U.S. production. Large chunks of manufacturing work have been sent overseas leaving American industries compromised and sometimes empty-handed. Quality factors aside, this has been a game changer.

Recent actions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) include proposed changes to speed union elections and impose stricter reporting requirements for labor management relations consultants and advisors. On the state level in places such as Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and others, legislation to curb unions has been taking place prompting an already-polarized population to polarize even further by choosing sides that are either pro-union or pro-company. Cases such as Wal-Mart (1) and Boeing (2) have become barometers for the labor climate. Issues such as pension and healthcare plans have sparked debates about taxpayer-funded programs and what is reasonable given the current economic situation both on the state and federal levels.

Regardless of how one feels about union/no union, the trend is clear: people are fired up and digging in deep. Unions want to stay alive and show no signs of going quietly into the night. Companies are fighting to keep union representatives out of the boardroom as well as to save their businesses. The federal government in the form of the NLRB and National Mediation Board (NMB) have shown they can and will follow their line of sight as it pertains to their vision of union and company rights. States have pushed back on union demands (3, 4) and public response has intensified (5). Mainstream and social media have become real-time expressions of the battles and wars. Individuals who grew up during a time with little ties to a union are now becoming activists in one direction or another. It is all quite something.

Before you load up your gun and head off to Tombstone for the battle consider this: while there are employers out there who do absolutely everything in their power to treat employees well, keep them safe and ensure the overall, long-term successes of their organizations, there are also employers who push the limits in terms of poor employee relations practices. Persistent issues such as lack of transparency in compensation, lack of organizational communication, lack of compliance with safety regulations, lack of common courtesy and respect – and the list goes on – all contribute to organizational health that is far less than optimal. To think these unfortunate situations do not occur is to live in a world that simply does not exist. Even for the employers who have their employee relations acts together, there is always room for improvement.

All of these dynamics add up to a warning to all employers that they need to clean up their acts well before a union comes calling. To wait until a union campaign has begun (knowing the union has probably been working behind the scenes for months, catching the employer unaware and unprepared) is to plan to fail. Indeed positive employee relations consultants such as myself can only do so much if the company truly does not see the need for change and, most importantly, commit to making sustainable, long-term change. The reality is that by the time a union campaign is underway, if employees have not been treated somewhat well they are more likely to vote for a union and employee relations can and sometimes do turn adversarial. (Was conducting day-to-day business not difficult enough??)

I say often that the only organizations who become unionized these days are organizations that deserve to be unionized. As the playing field undergoes substantial changes my use of that saying may change. Regardless, even with the proposed changes if employers have had things in order well in advance of the campaign, they are more likely to open a cathartic dialogue with employees to get to the bottom of what is really going on, thereby facilitating solutions that are sustainable and consensus-driven. While the foregoing may be somewhat idealistic, it is far better to be prepared than to try to undo damage that has occurred incrementally and over a long period of time.

There will always be employees who could not be satisfied no matter what an organization provides in the way of compensation, benefits, etc., but that’s to be expected. Making quick changes to management practices and policies whilst in the middle of a unionization campaign is very delicate business. If the campaign fails there will likely be another campaign to follow, climate considered, and employees could be aggravated if changes during the first campaign were implemented only because of the first attempt to unionize. In this case, the second campaign would be that much more difficult from the employer perspective – and it should be because the employer was “all talk” and “no walk”.

To be clear: I am in no way minimizing the impact of the events, cases and legislation above. I am, however, pointing to the very basic fact that good management practices and positive employee relations can potentially make the difference between your workplace becoming the OK Corral or remaining a peaceful community where everyone works together with minimal disruption. It’s a lot of work, but the future of U.S. businesses and jobs depends upon it. Put the time in. Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk. And maybe everyone will put down their guns for a while to get some work done.

(1) “Employment Law Landscape Changes with Wal-Mart Ruling”. Workforce Management, June 20, 2011. http://www.workforce.com/section/news/article/employment-law-landscape-changes-wal-mart-ruling.php

(2) “Critical Developments in Labor and Employment Law. NLRB’s Complaint Against Boeing…Will It Fly?” Nixon Peabody, May 4, 2011. http://www.nixonpeabody.com/publications_detail3.asp?ID=3809

(3) “New Hampshire Senate Approves Bill Curbing Unions”. Forbes, April, 2011. http://billionaires.forbes.com/article/07eR9vJbma4ik?q=U.S.+Democratic+Party

(4) “SB5 Repeal Effort Exceeds 700,000 Signatures”. The Columbus Dispatch, June 17, 2011. http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2011/06/17/senate-bill-5-repeal-many-signatures.html

(5) “Largest Crowds Since Vietnam War March in Wisconsin”, Reuters, February 26, 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/26/us-wisconsin-protests-idUSTRE71O4F420110226

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