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Stop organizing! Featured

10:50am EDT October 23, 2001

Organized labor is on the offensive, in Ohio and around the country. Employer advocates are offering this advice to business owners and top executives: Don't wait until you've become a target.

"Union avoidance can be practiced by anybody and everybody" throughout a company's hierarchy, says Matthew Goodfellow, executive director of Chicago's University Research Center Inc., a not-for-profit group dedicated to union and strike avoidance.

"The basic trouble," Goodfellow says, "is that the employer, the owner or the president normally doesn't really care what takes place inside the plant. His interest is always outside, in the market, where the opportunities are. All he wants is that the inside of the plant is orderly and stays productive and ships the goods.

"In order to avoid unions, the employer has to have some kind of interest in what goes on inside the plant," Goodfellow says.

Holding the line

There's good reason to be concerned, Goodfellow and others agree. According to the National Labor Relations Board, the score for Ohio union elections in 1999 (the last year for which complete figures are available) was unions 102, employers 101. That's a big improvement for Ohio locals over 1998, Goodfellow says, when the score was unions, 86, employers 114.

In Columbus, however, employers seem to be enjoying better results.

Job security was the prime concern cited by 146 employees of Columbia Gas of Ohio when they held a union election Dec. 21. However, the Utility Workers Union of America lost that election, 101 to 32.

After Columbia was acquired last November by NiSource Inc., the Merrillville, Ind.-based parent announced plans to reorganize in Central Ohio, notes Doug Flowers, a Columbia spokesman. While NiSource promised to add a net 75 employees downtown, field workers feared the reorganization would cost their jobs.

"We'd like to continue to work directly with employees and plan to do that," Flowers says, following the union's defeat. "We don't think it's necessary for any third party involvement to make that happen."

Other area employers challenged by organizing drives:

  • Columbus-based AirNet Systems Inc. won a 1999 vote against the Teamsters, who tried to organize the company's pilots.

  • Holiday Inn-City Center dodged the bullet late last year when hotel union organizers canceled an expected vote.

  • Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville defeated at least two attempts by the United Auto Workers and at least one attempt by the Teamsters to organize its production and maintenance workers during the past 15 years.

Some employers have even managed to reverse labor's activist trend. At least four companies acquired during the past decade by Worthington Industries Inc., employees voted to decertify their local unions after becoming part of the company.

Labor on the march

Nationwide, unions seem to have reversed a trend, dating back to the 1950s, of almost continuous erosion in total membership -- and membership as a percentage of the American work force.

Unions added 265,000 members in 1999 and 100,000 members in 1998 after years of membership declines, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union membership stabilized in 1999 at 13.9 percent of the total work force -- the first time since 1955 that the union portion of the work force did not decline, notes Lynn C. Outwater, managing partner at employment law specialty firm Jackson Lewis in Pittsburgh.

Wages and benefits usually rank low among the motivating factors for workers recruited into union campaigns, says Outwater, whose office serves many Ohio firms she declined to name for fear of inviting more union activity. Job security, corporate restructuring, downsizing and reductions in pay and benefits resulting from restructuring and downsizing are more often the major motivators for organizing drives, Outwater and others say.

"Unions have been more successful, I think especially in recent years, as a result of these concerns," she says.

Outside agitators

The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly ruled, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 affirmed, that a company could not refuse to hire an applicant simply because that individual was a union organizer.

"This was a signal to other unions that they can apply for various jobs (for) the sole purpose to organize the plant from the inside," Goodfellow says.

And that could be how it starts, says Armando Azarloza, general manager at BSMG Worldwide Inc. in Los Angeles.

"Some external factor usually triggers the interest of the local to begin an organizing campaign," he says.

Azarloza has advised Wal-Mart, management consulting giant Maximus Inc. and Catholic Healthcare West, among others, on how to avoid getting hit by an organizing drive -- or how to defeat a drive once it's begun.

"These unions have adopted in-your-face tactics," Azarloza says.

Organizers may start rumor campaigns slandering an employer's policies and practices; big unions have advertising budgets, printing presses and van-based mobile organizing centers.

"I have argued that if you are aggressive, you will be successful. We've tried to become as sophisticated and aggressive as they are," Azarloza says.

Hospitality industry employees -- often low-paid, foreign-born and undereducated, he says -- are a favorite target for newly aggressive union campaigners.

"Health care is becoming increasingly difficult (for employers), and it's becoming a No. 1 target for labor," Azarloza adds.

Even so-called "new economy" Internet companies like Amazon.com have become the target of union drives, he notes.

Know your work force

So what are employers to do when faced with the announcement that employees are gathering petition signatures for a vote to unionize their company?

One thing consultants agree you can't do is fire the organizers.

"Any arbitrary distinction is ruled out," Goodfellow says, both by the recent labor relations board case and by labor management law set down in the National Labor Relations Act.

Outwater says, "That law is really what I call the Bible when it comes to employees' right to organize or not to organize, and employers' rights to free speech, and obligations not to violate the rights of employees."

State laws have little to say about most private employment settings, she adds.

Thus, Goodfellow says, "Whatever dissatisfactions the employees have -- reasonable or unreasonable -- the employer has to find out to do something about them."

Of course, it's best to know already what those grievances are, Goodfellow and others agree.

"It isn't about avoiding unions," Outwater says. "It's about treating employees properly."

Overbearing, unreasonable, arbitrary, indifferent and inconsistent management and administration of company policies are a great place for organizers to make their opening to unhappy employees. Poor and unsafe working conditions, discriminatory supervisors and mandatory overtime also prepare union campaigners' ground for them.

"All these things carry a lot of weight with employees," Goodfellow says. "Money is way down the list."

If you have a good relationship with your employees, you can ask them about their complaints, and perhaps make accommodations to dampen pro-union sentiment.

"Ninety-nine percent of employees will be happy if an employer does something, even if it's only halfway," Goodfellow says. "They'll be pleased just to be heard."

Audit your employees

But if you have a good relationship with your employees, chances are you wouldn't be under the union gun. If you're already the target of an organizing drive, Goodfellow and others suggest, you should consider conducting an employee audit.

This involves hiring a third-party consultant to come in and review your operations. The auditor also offers to hear employee grievances in a private setting with guaranteed anonymity to reduce fears of retaliation.

"This knowledgeable outsider tells the employees, 'I'm only interested in what you have to say, not who said it,'" Goodfellow says.

His University Research Center maintains a list of recommended employee auditors nationwide, along with many other free, pro-employer services.

Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in Marysville has conducted employee audits for years, notes spokesperson Sharon Van Winkle, though not directly in response to organizing attempts. A 1999 Teamsters' petition fell short of the 30 percent of 8,000 Marysville, Ana and East Liberty Honda employees needed to call a union election.

"I don't know that we've avoided a union," says Van Winkle, who credits the audits and other team-oriented, employee participation policies with making Honda one of Fortune magazine's "100 Best Places to Work." "Most people would just say that we're in the best position to take care of ourselves."

Not every employee complaint is reasonable, Outwater says. But Goodfellow emphasizes that negotiators should try to reach a reasonable compromise. If employees complain a workspace needs an air conditioner because it's too hot, they might settle for an electric fan.

What you can do

If the battle is already under way, Azarloza says, you should treat a union election campaign just like an election campaign.

"It really takes a kind of campaign team approach to it," says Azarloza, who as a former congressional press secretary has seen both kinds of campaigns up close.

Protect your company's public image, Azarloza advises. Organizers may try to trash your reputation to build public support for their efforts, and they are media-savvy.

Build relationships with your key business constituents (suppliers, customers, etc.). But don't neglect public groups that may be neutral or supportive of your stand. Prepare to justify your business decisions to these constituencies.

Use friendly public faces to tell your side of the story. Not every employer is fortunate enough to have nuns in senior executive positions, as BSMG client Catholic Healthcare West did during a recent organizing drive. But a popular senior executive or an employee well-regarded for community service can help your case in the media.

Help employees willing to publicly oppose the organizing drive. "I call this providing air support," Azarloza says. "If you provide air support, they'll go out in the trenches and fight for you."

Fight misinformation. Don't let inaccurate or unjust charges go unanswered in the media. Respond quickly. "You have a 24-hour news cycle, just like in politics," Azarloza says.

Shift the debate to your issues and point of view. "Once you can turn the debate to the issues you think are important, rather than the issues the union is putting forward, they'll often go on the defensive, and you'll find you can make your case more effectively," Azarloza says.

Know your rights, both under the National Labor Relations Act, and in case law that elaborates on the act. "Just because you're a target of an organizing drive doesn't mean you surrender your chance to fight back," Azarloza says. How to reach: University Research Center Inc., (312) 263-7321; National Labor Relations Board, (202) 208-3000; Honda of America Manufacturing, (937) 644-7714; Armando Azarloza, BSMG Worldwide Inc., (310) 966-5516; Lynn C. Outwater,the Jackson Lewis law firm, (412) 232-0185

William Hoffman (whoffman@erols.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.