Written by attorney Russell J. Thomas Jr


When it comes to unions, many employers take the approach that “it can’t" or “it won’t happen here." Other companies believe that “our employees are loyal and would not go for a union." In today’s times this attitude is unrealistic and dangerous.

First, management must make a conscious business decision to remain union-free. Has your company made that decision?

The decision to remain union-free may seem like an easy one, but the implications of that decision are frequently overlooked by most employers.

The vast majority of employers understand the advantages of remaining union-free and know the disadvantages of having a union. Some companies may have no choice about recognizing a union – for example, certain construction projects can only be done through using union workers.

The obvious disadvantages to unions are that the presence of a union limits management’s flexibility in a number of ways. Virtually any decision made by management concerning the treatment of an employee can result in a grievance filed by the Union. If management wishes to change any term or condition of employment, the company must first bargain with the union, and secure the union’s agreement before making the change.

Another disadvantage of unionization is that it will wreak havoc with any program maintained by the company concerning diversity and equal employment opportunity. Any promotion or transfer decision will be controlled by seniority. Thus, in a union environment, newly hired minority or female employees could not be promoted ahead of employees with longer service.

When management decides that it wishes to remain union-free, the company must deal with the implications of that decision. How will management implement that decision?

The first question that must be faced is whether to communicate that decision to managers and employees. Some employers think that the less said about unions the better – why put the idea in the minds of employees.

Unfortunately, there is no automatic answer to the question. If the company is confident, after careful and thorough analysis, that the possibility of a union organizing attempt is highly unlikely, then the employer is probably safe in not bringing up the subject of unionization.

On the other hand, if company competitors have had recent union activity, if the company is in an industry where unions represent employees of other companies or if there has been union activity in the geographic area, management should not ignore the issue but address it.

Under current law, the employer has a legal right to express its opinion about unions and its desire that employees not have a union. .

If the employer decides to express its opinion against unions, that statement should be put in writing after it is reviewed by an employment attorney. Management’s statement will have more impact on employees if it is put in writing rather than communicated by word of mouth. Also, if the employer is ever accused of committing an unfair labor practice, the company will have a document showing exactly what was said.

Once the company makes a business decision to remain union-free, it is vitally important that the business decision be communicated to every member of management. It is critical that every management representative of the company knows about the policy and fully supports the policy. It is possible that some members of management may have started out as employees who worked in a union environment, or that some managers may be ambivalent on the issue of unions. However, any person who is a manager in the company must know the policy and follow it; management has the absolute right to insist on complete support and loyalty from any manager when it comes to the issue of unionization.

Deciding to remain union-free and then communicating that decision to every member of management is the first step which any employer must take if it wishes to conduct its business without any interference from a union.

Once the employer has made the decision to remain union-free, management must then take positive steps to implement that decision.

First, it is vitally important that employers view the goal of remaining union free not just as a negative goal – keeping a union out, but rather as a positive strategy that will result not only in keeping out the union but also produce a more productive and efficient workforce.

A common mistake made by many employers is to assume that employees want a union simply because they want more money. While increases in wages may be used by the union as a selling point, the flashpoint which triggers most union organizing efforts results from the employer’s failure to adopt and implement a positive employee relations program.

An effective employee relations program begins with a conscious decision that the management style of the company stresses teamwork rather than a philosophy of command and control. Put a different way, management does not think in terms of “we" as managers, and “them" as employees. Rather, management believes in “us" – all managers and employees working together to bring about a successful result. In practice this means that every employee, irrespective of rank, is treated as a contributor to the success of the business. Rather than take the approach of “we", management, give orders and “them", the employees, follow them, each manager treats his/her subordinates with respect and whenever possible helps the employee succeed.

The cornerstone of an effective employee relations program is communications – managers communicating with employees – employees communicating with management. If management adopts the approach that managers and employees make up one team, then management communicates regularly with employees about what’s going on in the business, challenges faced by the business and the successes of the business. If these types of communications are managed properly, then the employees will realize that the company thinks they are important, and consequently will not feel a need to enlist outside help – a union.

The other important aspect of communications is allowing employees to talk to management. An employer that wishes to remain union free should have some form of open door policy. That means that in writing, in the employee handbook, there is a clear statement encouraging employees to bring any questions or concerns to management – to their supervisor or to human resource personnel. Management should be ready to treat any concern expressed by any employee with interest. That doesn’t mean that management will agree with the employee; but it does mean that management must be prepared to listen, and when necessary, explain a decision or policy to the employees in a manner that shows that the employee’s concern has been treated seriously. Management can also use information received through the open-door policy as an early warning system of potential problems at the workplace. If there are complaints about a particular supervisor, if there are racial or ethnic tensions in the work force, management can then take action to deal with these issues. Above all, any open door policy must have credibility. If management finds that a supervisor or manager has made a mistake, then management must step up to the issue and fix it.

It is the failure of many employers to understand the vital role of communications which frequently results in a union organizing effort. For example, if employees believe that a supervisor is arbitrary or unfair, or that employees have received unfair discipline or discharge, then if the employer does not offer an internal mechanism for the employees to bring up their concerns, the employee is likely to look outside the company for help. A union organizer is more than willing to provide that help. It is usually some form of what employees believe to be unfair treatment that triggers a union organizing effort. Once the organizing starts, the union will promise higher wages, but wages are rarely the spark that ignites the union organizing fuse.

As with many other employee issues, prevention is the best approach.

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