Crisis Management: Companies Get the Unions They Deserve
The Employee Free Choice Act of 2009
According to The New York Times, 2008 saw the largest rise in union membership in a quarter century in the United States. The number, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was a gain of 428,000. According to The Times report, most new members were in government employment or education. If the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) passes, which is highly likely, there may well be another spike in union membership in America, probably starting this year.
Why does this law have such a great chance of passage? It’s because corporate tactics against unions and against this legislation have been incredibly negative, arrogant, and insulting to workers. Let’s look at the pattern:
- Anti-union forces in business cite the levels of corruption in labor unions, the convictions of labor union leaders, and locals under supervision. The conviction and firing for cause of CEOs and senior business leaders, if not equal to, probably surpasses the number of union leaders who have been sentenced, are serving prison terms, or who have been otherwise prosecuted.
- One business strategy is to discredit and disparage the concept of unions, their leaders, and the employees who show an interest in being represented. In other words, those who join unions feel victimized by business. So, business responds with aggressively negative intimidation, ridicule, and bullying, thus assuring further victimization and greater union loyalty.
- Business owns everything (e.g., the jobs, assets, markets, resources, and even the future). Union employees only have a contract—a piece of paper or perhaps a small pamphlet—that keeps them from speaking directly to their managers and leaders, and dictates that they talk through someone who, odds are, they would rarely invite home for Sunday family dinner.
- When union members attempt to correct their earlier judgment and decertify their unions, a decision only employees can make, management tends to jump in behind the scenes using the same negative, bullying, denigrating, and discrediting tactics I’ve just described. When this happens, of course, decertification fails.
Let me amend my statement: Unionized companies get the unions they deserve and seem to work very hard to keep them.
I know something about the attitude of union workers. I grew up in a labor household. My father was a shop steward for 29 years. He talked and acted like a victim of the Minneapolis public school system for most of his working adult life. I think he went to his grave regretting that he was never able to lead an illegal teachers strike against the Minneapolis school board.
The mistake management makes is to wage war instead of peace. It may be too late to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act. Business is using its same old tactics—fear, bullying, defensive threats, and whining. Now it’s time to begin preparing for whatever comes out of Congress this year and, perhaps, a modest increase in organized labor membership in the next few years. Here are the most important steps:
- Learn how to wage peace with your employees, at every level, every day.
- Dump the warriors, confrontation artists, and those who disdain, demean, and discredit. They are toxic to your relationships.
- Get rid of friends and associates who call this approach one for “sissies”. It isn’t their war. It isn’t their peace.
- Forget the employee surveys of satisfaction and other metrics. Get into the trenches and talk to everyone face-to-face. Commit yourself to getting to know as many employees as you can, their families, and the things that concern them. Every employee survey I’ve seen, even those from Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For, illustrate that most employees have two basic questions all of the time—“Does anyone know I’m here?” and “Does what I do really matter?” This is fertile ground for the organizer because the groundwork has been laid for employees to feel like victims most of the time.
- Fix it now. Change it now. Question it now. Challenge it now. If business thinks its employees deserve better, business leaders had better start acting like it. If not, you better think about adding a bargaining table to your office furniture before the end of the year.