We are once again confronted with proposed changes to the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) union election procedures. With the changes fast approaching, I have again been flooded with questions by various companies about what exactly the future business landscape will look like. However, I am still mystified by how few companies have actually formulated an effective union avoidance strategy.
In the 1990s, when I moved from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union to the United Steelworkers of America (now the USW) and took the position of International Organizing Director, I immediately began assisting an aggressive expansion movement into Canada. I helped the USW in merging with Canadian unions in retail, wholesale, rubber and aluminum workers to quickly become Canada's largest private sector union. Canada was the perfect location to diversify our membership, with its election cycles averaging between 5 and 10 days from petition/application to election.
We immediately hired and trained many new organizers to meet the needs of the massive organizing assault that was in the works, and determined the best strategies to devote our efforts to. First, we concentrated on organizing within the newly merged industries and went after the companies where we already had represented members. We also brought in union organizers from the U.S. who were experienced in our target industries. We formed assault-style teams to quickly overwhelm our targets; with a 5-to-10 day election turnover, it was easy to distract management teams and deplete company resources, costing them tens of thousands to millions of dollars within a very short timeframe. It was very cheap and easy to commit small teams to strategically frustrate and confuse management.
Retail stores were some our first targets. We wanted to hit a large grocery store chain, so we pinpointed 15 out of 92 stores across Canada to start out with. We sent salts (infiltrators) to get hired and assist established support in these stores, and they provided us a breakdown of all the stores in the chain. Our reports gave us a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each management team, as well as information on their demographics, income and turnover rate. We spent almost four months in those first 15 stores building internal support through our research. We also decided to send salts to another 12 stores, including the chain’s flagship store, to create a distraction when the time was right.
We created a detailed calendar of events to fill the days from when the petition was filed until the election. We had age-, sex- and race-discrimination charges ready to file before we even filed any petitions/applications for election. Our goal was to file all elections and charges simultaneously. Our next move was to deflect attention from our real targets by exposing organizing activities in the 12 stores that we were using as distractions.
Our goal was to get the company to exhaust their management resources by having the salts direct the employees to flaunt organizing activity in the 12 distraction stores. These stores were strategically selection to be distant from each other to make it impossible for any one group of corporate campaigners to hit more than one store a day. We also kept their legal teams tied up with multiple charges being filed, while at the same time we hit their other stores with disruptions such as protests and demonstrations against unfair treatment of their employees. We were known to hit the stores with skunk oil to close them down and force them to hire PR companies to do damage control for their corporate image.
In the midst of this chaos, we filed petitions for the 15 stores that were our true targets, and hit them with a flood of charges. Five-to-ten days later, we had elections and won all 15 stores. It was very easy to do. Given the short amount of time for the election process, it would be nearly impossible for any company to recover from that type of internal destruction. In the first two years, my team’s win rate was 90% in organizing, and the money we saved by not having long campaigns was tremendous.
While working for the unions, I oversaw more than 1,000 organizing campaigns, so I can say with some authority that the biggest cause of union-organizing activities is the breakdown of communications, resulting in anger and frustration. Unions win well-executed organizing campaigns by destroying the relationship between employees and their management teams, making the work atmosphere ripe for the unions’ propaganda. Unions remain undercover before the election petition is filed, and when they have sufficient support they file and simultaneously attack the public image and reputation of the target employer. Fictitious charges flow and the union organizers do everything in their power to keep the company distracted and the employees angry. This is easily accomplished, but the problem was always keeping the high energy levels sustained for 42 days. In my example above, that problem was avoided because of Canada’s short election cycle. While I was a union official, we often spoke of the carnage we would release on companies in the U.S. if we had a Canadian-style election timeline, since quick assault organizing teams could go after unsuspecting companies and hit them hard and fast after the preliminary work was complete.
Now let's take a look at what has transpired since 2012, when Chapter 1 of the rush to change election timelines took place. We have seen national action taken against the fast food, service and retail industries, and health care remains a prime target. As part of their strategy to reinvigorate employee membership, union federations have chosen to concentrate their resources by targeting state and local elections to ensure public officials of their choosing get elected. The NLRB has allowed college athletes to unionize and the right to organize micro units is moving forward. The AFL/CIO has announced that they, along with their affiliate unions, are increasing their organizing budgets in anticipation of the reduced election cycle and plan to concentrate more on long-term corporate pressure campaigns.
The NLRB has also stepped up pressure on companies by forcing field agents to scrutinize any Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) charges filed against management. We have received internal confirmation that direction has come down from Washington, D.C. that the normal rules of evidence are out the window. Charges that, in the past, would have been dismissed for lack of merit have now been given a new life, and management now has a bigger burden to demonstrate innocence of charges filed against them.
OSHA has also shown signs of leaning towards the unions. It is no secret that unions use OSHA as a tool to apply pressure to an employer. Historically, this meant a phone call to the local OSHA office and visit by an OSHA inspector. This has now changed, as OSHA has recently allowed union representatives to tag along during investigations of safety complaints at non-unionized companies that are well-known union targets. OSHA ruled that "employees in a workplace without a collective bargaining agreement may designate a union-affiliated individual to act as their personal representative." This is just another tool that allows unions to stand on their soapbox and push their message onto the workforce.
Now is the time to get ahead of the curve and insulate your company against union infiltration. It is time to start the paradigm shift in corporate America. The changes that are occurring mean that unions will be presented with an enormous advantage in organizing situations. We need to shift from being reactive to union organizing attempts to be proactive to keep the unions out. Unions are salivating at the prospect of quickie elections and micro-unions, at having a pro-labor government in place, and the momentum these have created. You can bet that unions will not slow down; they were forced into a corner, but now have an opportunity to regrow their membership. They will be coming out swinging. Areas in the South that have historically been non-targets are now publically announced as being in the unions' cross-hairs. Industries that were never previously organized, such as fast food, are now in the national spotlight. Allow PSLC to train your management team to practice positive employee relations and place a firewall between unions and the workforce, before your company becomes part of an organizing attempt. The cost of training your supervisors and management team will be money well-spent. You are not only protecting your company against a costly union attack, but are also creating an environment that fosters increased production, increased employee satisfaction, and decreased turnover.
With the public commentary period ending on April 7th, 2014, the NLRB has demonstrated their urgency in moving forward with their "Quickie Election" agenda by setting public hearings on April 10th and April 11th, 2014. They will be opening the doors to attendees at 8:00 AM. The hearings on the proposed amendments governing representation case procedures will be webcasted and can be viewed at http://www.nlrb.gov/openmeeting.