Evolving labor unions Featured

7:00pm EDT March 28, 2006
This past summer marked one of the most important events in the history of organized labor. Seven major unions — dissatisfied with what they perceived as a continued decline in the union movement — left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation (CTW).

“In 1955, unions represented approximately 35 percent of the workforce in the U.S. In 2005, slightly under 8 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized,” says Michael J. Stief III, a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Jackson Lewis.

“The CTW is seeking to reverse that trend. At its first convention, held in September 2005, the CTW articulated aggressive goals, including its plans to spend $750 million annually in an attempt to organize new members. The AFL-CIO, spurred on by these aggressive actions, will spend millions on organizing and training organizers as well.”

Smart Business spoke with Stief regarding the effects that changing labor unions will have on management.

What are the ramifications of the split in organized labor?

There will be an increase in organizing efforts by both the AFL-CIO and the CTW. No longer are manufacturing settings the prime targets. When asked what the targets are for the CTW, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. of the International Brothers of Teamsters mentioned any jobs that cannot be shipped overseas. This clearly includes industries such as retail, health care, hospitality, distribution centers, customer-service centers, linen service, building maintenance, casinos, et cetera.

What new union organizing techniques will we see?

Non-union employers will see both the AFL-CIO and CTW using non-traditional approaches to organize employees, including card-checks and neutrality agreements.

Traditionally, employees voted in government-controlled secret ballot elections to decide if they were going to unionize. Last year, unions won about 60 percent of the elections they conducted. Even with that encouraging percentage, unions view the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process as slanted in favor of the employer. Today, unions want employers to agree to card-check recognition, which does not seek an NLRB election. With card-checks, the employer voluntarily views signed unionization cards, and if the majority of employees have signed the cards, the union is then recognized.

Neutrality agreements require the employer to remain neutral during a union organizing drive. The employer gives up its free speech rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to communicate its views, opinions, and facts about unionization to employees.

Employers that are already unionized may be targets of corporate campaigns during times of contract negotiation. There will be an effort to coordinate the expiration of collective bargaining agreements within industries and regions. The unions are looking to achieve common expiration dates in order to obtain more power at the bargaining table.

Why would an employer agree to the card-check process or a neutrality agreement?

There could be a great deal of pressure on the employer, especially if it is the target of a corporate campaign — a multifaceted attack on a company during a union-organizing drive. We are seeing more and more corporate campaign tactics. The union organizers may be appealing to the public on social awareness issues regarding the employer. There may be message campaigns directed at clients, vendors, shareholders, banks, company officers and outside directors. There may be political and religious pressure. Internal dissent may take place in the form of sick days, work slowdowns and confrontations. The employer gets to the point where it decides it’s had enough, so it agrees to the card-check recognition process and the neutrality agreement.

What newer approaches are organizers using to reach employees?

The Internet has had a tremendous effect. Every major international union has a Web site, as do many local unions. Many Web sites and Web logs are dedicated to a particular organizing drive. Organizers are increasingly going directly to employees’ homes, and sending employees custom videos in the mail. There is a common theme, and that is to take organizing out of the workplace. Organizers want things to be more clandestine, rather than having efforts take place at the worksite where management can get informed and react quicker.

What actions should employers take in the current environment?

In a unionized environment, employers should speak to other companies in their geographic area represented by that same union to get a good idea of the union’s priorities and objectives at the bargaining table.

Union-free companies should conduct a vulnerability assessment. Take a look at the company from the employee-relations point-of-view to get a pulse on employee morale. Analyze the wages and benefits, safety issues, the quality of your communications program. Do you have a dispute resolution procedure in place? Do employees feel they can get their issues with you resolved? Are your supervisors well-trained in issues regarding unionization?

MICHAEL J. STIEF III is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Jackson Lewis. Reach him at (412) 232-0138 or stiefm@jacksonlewis.com.