Is labor unrest a communications problem?

The conventional wisdom is that labor unions are on the wane and that union power is disappearing.  But for businesses that have unhappy workers and are facing an organizing campaign, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

The conventional wisdom is that labor unions are on the wane and that union power is disappearing.  But for businesses that have unhappy workers and are facing an organizing campaign, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

In fact, the ability of a union to gain a foothold at a company is usually less about the clout and skill of union organizers and more about the failure of managers to connect with their people.

Let me give you an example, based on real-life situations in which my firm has been asked to advise at major organizations nationwide.

A manager is hired to take over a small unit in a company – he may now be the boss of his former peers or a new guy in his first supervisory position.  He has had no training for his new role, including no training in communications, and, sensing his vulnerability, his new reports challenge his knowledge, skills and gumption.

He is especially uncomfortable with an older employee who is angry about being passed over, and with a young woman whose accent he finds hard to understand.

There are complaints about a lack of supplies, the condition of the washrooms, questions about benefits, scheduling conflicts, budget issues, and one worker who is clearly struggling and is in the new manager’s office all the time.

Over several months, the manager retreats to his office, sits by himself in the cafeteria, issues orders via email, doesn’t return phone calls.  His boss calls him in one day and asks, “Why didn’t you tell me that the union local was passing around signature cards?”

“What?” he says.  He didn’t know.

This scenario may sound far-fetched, especially to those who assume that union organizing arises when workers are underpaid and overworked or when unions “infiltrate” the workplace. 

But workplace disputes more typically arise from a sense of disrespect or disregard, and unions get invited into the workplace because workers feel ignored and believe they have no other option.  In other words, the sources of employee discontent are often communications issues, and they are growing in urgency.  Witness the walkouts and lawsuits about work schedules set by retailers.

We’ve seen this situation occur many times across a wide range of industries – retail, transportation, health care, security, distribution.  A simple failure to communicate can lead to increased union efforts … either to get in the door (in non-union facilities) or to raise the stakes in negotiations where a union is already entrenched.  And lawyers’ admonitions – like “Be careful what you say” – often discourage managers from engaging with their teams.

For many workers, a lack of clear, timely and helpful communication from their supervisor is a real irritant and the impetus for union activity. It is not the result of union “agitating.”

Senior management – and legal counsel – need to be aware of this tendency and what it can do to forestall it.  In our experience, there are five steps that can be taken to make employee dissatisfaction and union activity less likely:

  1. Managers and supervisors must give the people they work with clear goals, timetables, and responsibilities… and hold them accountable.  There is nothing worse for morale or performance than an unclear mandate and subpar performance that is allowed to stand.  It is a fallacy that unions gain traction when bosses are tough; in our experience, unions gain traction when bosses are inconsistent in their treatment of colleagues. 
  2. Managers and supervisors need to be able to explain the organization’s work, performance, salary and benefit guidelines to their colleagues.  In larger organizations, this can be extremely complicated and requires the active participation of the HR department.  The failure to explain benefits is one of the most common gripes we hear.
  3. Managers need the tools and skills to communicate clearly and with authority and be able to deal with situations that can become heated or contentious.  Media and message training are extremely valuable, but the best exercise is getting out and talking to the people you work with.  With experience comes confidence on when to engage, when to suggest the worker talk to the HR department, and when to pass complaints up the chain of command and – importantly – bring a response back down.
  4. Similarly, an organization needs to create an environment in which open, honest and respectful communications are expected, encouraged and rewarded.  In a fearful environment, employees seek help from outside entities – unions, regulatory agencies or the courts – instead of bringing their concerns to management where they can be solved more effectively.
  5. Communications up and down the chain of command should be part of an employee’s annual evaluation and promotions and raises should depend – in part – on how well a supervisor communicates with his or her troops. 

Attorneys know there are rules that govern communications during a union organizing campaign and in environments where the workers are represented by a union.  But these rules are not a gag order.  Indeed, expressing the organization’s point of view on performance and operational issues is more important when workers are seeking to organize.

Given the new generation of workers coming into the workplace – with their expectations and supposed sense of entitlement – as well as the very real problem of income inequality, the appeal of unions could actually increase in coming years.  The pressure will be on managers to communicate often and well, and on their lawyers to encourage them and make sure their messaging is appropriate.  Communications alone won’t make workers’ interest in union representation disappear, but it can eliminate the frustration and anger that make unions seem like the only answer.

Stuart Fischer is a Partner and co-head of the Labor & Employment practice at Finsbury. He is based in New York City.

This article first appeared in Law360.