January 16, 2024
Title image with "My Employees Want to Unionize. What Do I Do?" over photo of male warehouse worker standing with arms folded

So, you thought unions were a thing of the past—but then your employees started discussing unionizing. Perhaps they’ve even begun the process. 

Before you panic, respond negatively, and harm employee relations, take a moment to breathe! Consider what it means that your employees want to form a union.

Workers generally don’t organize unions with the goal of going to war against their employer. They’re trying to communicate with you about what they want, the things that your company could do to improve the working conditions and lives for themselves and their team members. Instead of viewing it as a threat, consider how you can work with employees to lift them up along with your organization.

With the right proactive measure, you can mitigate the chances of employees feeling the need for a union. If they do take this road, responding calmly and communicatively can lead to a positive outcome—but handling union efforts poorly (e.g., punishment, termination, or preventing unionization) can have a severe impact on your employee turnover, operations, reputation, and more.

Read on to understand why there is a “right” and “wrong” way to deal with employee unions and tips for responding wisely.

The Status of Unions

Why is it that unions seem to be on the rise again? Consider the current job market, where employees now have leverage as the unemployment rate remains below 4%. This means workers feel there is less risk in unionizing and are more confident about their ability to find another job with better conditions and pay.

But what do the laws say? The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) allows workers to form a union in one of two ways. Organizers can pursue an NLRB election if they get at least 30% of workers to sign cards or a petition saying they want a union; if the majority vote for a union, the NLRB will certify it. Or, the employer can voluntarily recognize a union based on proof (i.e., signed union-authorization cards) that a majority of employees want union representation.

Concerted activity is also protected, meaning employers can’t stop employees from discussing work conditions, how to improve them, and unionization. Follow the NLRB’s “TIPS” rule, outlining which actions are illegal: 

  • Threats: Employers cannot threaten employees for supporting a union.
  • Interrogation: Employers cannot question employees about their union sympathies, activities, or those of their peers.
  • Promises: Employers cannot promise or provide benefits to employees to gain their support and deter them from supporting the union. 
  • Surveillance: Employers cannot spy or pretend to spy on union activity.

However, managers and supervisors can communicate specific information during a unionization campaign under the “FOE” rules: 

  • Facts: You may share publicly available facts from reputable sources like the NLRB and unionfacts.com.
  • Opinions: You may share why your company believes a union is unnecessary.
  • Examples: You may provide real stories of others to highlight why a union might not be the right choice.

Create an Employee-Centric Corporate Culture

Let’s face it: Your employees are your most important business asset. Not your facility, equipment, inventory, or cash flow. It’s your people—without them, your operations and productivity, even your customer experience, would suffer.

It goes without saying, then, that the first step in avoiding unionization is creating a workplace culture where employees don’t feel it’s necessary to form a union. So, how do you do this? Maintain employee satisfaction by: 

  • Fair, competitive pay and benefits
  • Ongoing performance management 
  • New opportunities and room for growth
  • Safe, healthy, and enjoyable working conditions
  • Flexible work schedules and paid leave policies
  • Providing a system for employee feedback and ideas—and showing you listen to them!

With a positive company culture that puts your people first, employees will know that leadership cares about their well-being at work and beyond. In turn, they likely won’t feel a need to unionize. 

Typically, union talks begin when teams believe management does not care about and value them. So remember, even when workers have concerns and conflict arises, listening can go a long way. People often just want to be heard!

Address Concerns Early

Sure, you can look for warning signs of employees wanting to form a union, but by this point, it’s likely too late. 

Instead, you should have a pulse on your workplace culture and employee satisfaction long before problems are significant enough that people start talking about unionizing. Hence the importance of building a positive workplace culture and putting employees first from the beginning!

Once you start hearing rumblings of unionization talk, you first need to assess what issues could be driving them to unionize. Consider the common issues mentioned above. What changes can you make? If you can’t afford the pay and benefits workers are requesting, what else can you offer? Look at work-life balance perks like those flexible work schedules and leave policies.

Despite discussions about forming a union, it may not be what your employees truly want—often, they feel it’s the best option to garner attention and change. Again, showing them an effort to listen and create a fair work environment can often deter union efforts.

Shift Your Perspective

Historically, many companies believe that unions would not be good for either party and attempt to convince employees of this, too. From the last couple of years, we can look to the recent Starbucks, Amazon, and Target stories as glaring examples of what companies should NOT do. 

Starbucks fired workers known to be involved in union organizations and closed stores with strong union activity. Amazon has been found in violation of labor laws by retaliating against employees for union activities and threatening employees. The company also required workers to attend a series of anti-union meetings in the weeks leading up to the Staten Island union elections. And leaked Target training documents showed that the company instructs store management to prevent workers from forming unions.

Employers walk a fine line regarding workers’ rights to unionize. At the least, they risk reputational damage; at worst, they risk violating labor laws. 

Recognize that when employees form a union, it means they are dedicated to improving the company.

Yes, they could simply quit and find work elsewhere—but they are invested in their coworkers and some part of the organization

When you go the collaborative route in your relationship with a worker union, it can actually have positive effects, such as:

  • Improved employee retention and relations
  • Fostering trust and more efficient problem-solving—without the power struggle that often comes along with union negotiations
  • A more equitable and sustainable workplace

Respond to Unionization Efforts

Take the time to find out what employees want and why they’re forming a union, then evaluate how you can address their concerns. Consult a labor law attorney before reacting to unionization efforts or making any rash decisions. Then, determine how you will respond—remember, it isn’t black and white or one extreme or the other.

Establish open communication channels between management and employees, and encourage continued dialogue. This is one way to immediately address concerns and issues and demonstrate that the company values employee feedback, helping to build trust and reduce the appeal of unionization. 

Below are a couple of approaches employers could take. 

Pursue an Active Partnership

Working together can strengthen employee relations and result in a positive outcome, preventing the situation from going sour. You could start by implementing: 

  • Employee engagement programs focused on improving job satisfaction, work-life balance, and overall employee welfare
  • Labor management committees where management and employees collaborate on workplace issues 

Both can help build trust and address concerns before things escalate to unionization.

Proactively working with employees could also mean voluntarily recognizing the union (i.e., recognizing the union without requiring a formal NLRB-run election). At this point, you should begin good-faith negotiations. This involves sincere efforts to reach an agreement on terms that both parties find acceptable.

Maintain a Neutral & Respectful Stance

If you choose not to voluntarily recognize a union, you can still respond legally and in a way that won’t further damage your relationship with workers. Avoid making negative comments about the union or its organizers, and refrain from any actions that could be perceived as attempting to influence employees’ decisions. 

You might also establish key agreements with union organizers, such as: 

  • A neutrality agreement stating you agree not to oppose unionization efforts actively. This can include not holding anti-union meetings, distributing anti-union materials, or taking actions that could be perceived as attempting to influence the outcome. 
  • An agreement allowing union organizers reasonable access to non-working areas of the workplace for organizing purposes. This agreement should outline a reasonable time, place, and manner to ensure minimal disruption to business operations.

Remember, you have the right to communicate with employees, so you may share information about the potential consequences and benefits of unionization to help them make educated decisions. 

After an NLRB Election

In the case an NLRB election takes place and employees vote in favor of unionization, accept the results and begin bargaining in good faith with the union. One essential piece to negotiate is a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which outlines the terms and conditions of employment. 

Additionally, ensure your company follows any NLRB orders related to the election process and subsequent bargaining by providing necessary information to the union and engaging in good-faith negotiations.

When it comes to communication with employees, keep it positive and respectful. Reassure them of the company’s commitment to maintaining a positive workplace despite the changes and encourage collaboration between membership and the union. Conduct orientations for employees and management to familiarize them with the rights and responsibilities established by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Maintain this open dialogue with the union to address concerns and ensure a collaborative relationship. This can help prevent misunderstandings and foster a positive working relationship. Explore opportunities for joint initiatives that benefit both the company and the unionized workforce. This could include joint committees to address workplace issues and improve communication.

Final Thoughts on Worker Unions

It’s essential for employers to strike a balance between addressing the root causes of employee dissatisfaction and respecting their rights to organize. Be cautious about engaging in activities that may be perceived as unfair labor practices, as these can lead to legal challenges.

By proactively addressing underlying issues, maintaining open communication, and respecting employees’ rights, you can create a positive workplace environment that mitigates the appeal of unionization. It’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy, transparency, and a commitment to addressing employees’ concerns.

Remember, each workplace is unique, and the appropriate response may vary based on the specific circumstances. Seeking legal advice and consulting with HR professionals can help tailor your approach to your organization’s needs and challenges. Contact BlueLion to learn how at info@bluelionllc.com or 603-818-4131 today!

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.