Knowing your opponent is everything. While working as a National Union Organizing Director, my teams were directed to root out and use our opponent's weaknesses as part of the decision-making process to determine if the unit of workers were prime for a successful campaign. We analyzed everything about management and the history of treatment of the employees and, most importantly, what perception the workers had of the treatment they received from management.
I recall one organizing campaign in southern California where we received a few calls from some employees from a cold storage warehouse company. It was basically a huge storage area for both refrigerated and frozen perishable foods that also had a blast freezer. The drivers were independent and were responsible for dropping off and picking up loads to be delivered to locations from many accounts.
The primary employee issues were basic: unrealistic production quotas, outdated equipment, and an outdated inventory system.
The combination of these issues caused many problems because no consideration made for the time spent fixing the main line issues. If equipment was breaking down, the computer system could not adjust for the equipment down time, or if the lift would not properly reach the 30-foot-high storage areas, the extra time taken to properly store the product could not be considered. The workers did not have adequate off- or warm-up- time from working in the freezer areas. This lack of consideration was causing a 300% turnover rate.
The personal issues were also very compelling. There was a constant change in upper management; the facility cycled through three plant managers over a two-year period. The supervisors were never on the floor. The leads were given all responsible to manage the workers with very little direction. Time off request, safety issues, or any other personal issues the workers relayed to the leads were almost never answered in a timely manner.
The company did, however, have some great motivation programs. Yearly production awards were very generous, but some of these award winners were among the first to reach out to the union.
The biggest weakness the company had was because the front-line supervisors had no relationship with the warehouse workers and the leads were for the union because the company hired supervisors from outside the company. The leads had no opportunity for advancement and, according to the NLRB rules, were considered hourly employees because of their job descriptions.
The company was caught off guard with the petition for an election forcing the front-line supervisors to quickly enter "cover your ass" mode to deny any union activity in their areas. Our reports were that they went to the leads to ask them who was responsible for the activity; we strategically fed the leads the information to feed back to the supervisors.
We told them through the leads to trust some of the strongest union supporters. Several of these were recent production award winners, so the company quickly accepted it as the truth. It was easy for management to believe these workers would be loyal to them because they had received rewards above and beyond the other employees: how could they not be loyal?
Our web of deceit through controlled miscommunication to management worked. The management brought the supposed company supporters into their circle of trust, and we continued to feed the information we wanted relayed to them.
By this time the company had hired an anti-union law firm and on-the-ground consultant company, we conducted daily meetings and directed the trusted employees to complain about how the consultants were communicating with the employees. We had workers openly complaining about the rudeness and unprofessional conduct of the consultants, and the information relayed back to the company was that they were losing the election because of the consultants. We filed false unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the consultants' actions which reflected the information the insurgent informants were giving to management.
Management wanted so badly to believe the informants that they fired the consultant company and relied solely on the insurgents' information to guide them in the conduct of the rest of the election.
The company never gained control of the floor. Organizing was rampant in the warehouse and union meetings were held in the freezer areas, on work time, where the management team never went. The company went into election day thinking they had an easy win. In the end, 210 workers voted for the union and 58 voted for the company. Management was shocked!
The reason for our win was because management was lazy; they passed their responsibility off onto others. Management also fell into the trap of buying into what they wanted to believe rather than performing the hard work of actually knowing their employees and engaging with them on a personal level.
My 97% national win rate was the result of quickly analyzing the weaknesses of the management team and using it against them. I was also able to make the workers dedicated to beating the enemy, and during a union campaign management becomes the enemy! I could never have achieved this success without managements' cooperation.
The lesson to be learned here is that during union campaigns, management must be on their toes, let their egos go and really learn to watch and listen. A petition is never filed unless the employees have lost faith in management. Once this occurs, management generally does not truly know their employees. Unions will look for the leaders on the floor to lead the campaign from the inside out. So many times, we have heard things like "We have done some much for him that he would never vote for the union", or "He is our best worker, there is no way he wouldn't support the company."
When your organization is facing a union campaign, the truth is that you can never fully trust anyone. You must step back and reevaluate relationships with employees and, unless you see them counter-campaigning against the union with your own eyes, you must assume they could be plotting against you. In fact, in every campaign we hear from management their disbelief about the sentiments coming some of their best or most assisted or catered to employees.
Winning a union campaign requires commitment from the entire management team, long hours, and starting a communication process and employee relations process from the ground up without violating rules set forth by the NLRB in a very short period.
The best way to win a union campaign is to never get into one. The best way to do this is to start reevaluating your supervisors' relationships with employees now while you are not under the gun of a NLRB petition.