Oh, You Want to Unionize? Here are All the Ways Your Employer Will Try to Stop You.

And why you should do it anyway

Just some quick facts: 85% of American lawyers are white, and 64% of them are men

In a recent article, the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center said that survey data showed them something surprising — nearly half of all non-unionized workers in the U.S. (58 million people) say they would vote for a union if given the chance. However, only 50,000 unorganized workers manage to win the right to a union through the National Labor Relations Board each year. If 58 million people want a union, why is it that less than 1% of them actualize this goal?

The answer is simple: there is a massive and highly profitable industry of “union avoidance” consultants who coach American employers on how to stop, or bust, would-be unions. A report from the Economic Policy Institute in 2020 documented that American corporations spend over $340 million per year to deny their employees the right to organize. Mother Jones also picked up this information, and published a list of what your favorite companies are spending for these consultants.

So what do these consultants do? They often give weekend seminars to employers on how to spot potential union activities, and produce nifty do and don’t presentations like this one:

According to one manufacturing website, these firms advise companies to treat unions like a ‘virus’ and inoculate staff with anti-union messaging early and often. They encourage employers to hold captive-audience meetings to directly explain why a union is not in employees best interest. These kinds of meetings are restricted in other democratic countries like Germany and Japan, because they toe the line between legal and illegal intimidation.

The firms also supply companies with materials to use, including petitions, ‘vote no’ buttons, managerial training modules, and even billboards. Using all of these tactics together, consultants claim overwhelming success in preventing unionization, often 95% or higher.

Most often, these improvements are immediate, tangible, and good for employees. This step might come in the form of a pay raise or longer contracts (which are non-binding if the company is located in a right-to-work state). In some cases, management will admit mistakes, invite people to communicate openly, and send personalized thank you notes that show appreciation. In other cases, supervisors will ask to be given a chance to show that they are committed to resolving problems without a union. This is all to increase trust that leaders have their employees’ backs and can be trusted with their future. Unfortunately, this does nothing to solve for the fact that leaders, supervisors, managers, and company owners can and do change over time. If employees ‘wait and see’, they will have no legal recourse if there are no lasting improvements or if things steadily decline.

This step is incredibly disheartening for organizers. Part of what consultants advise employers to do is divide and conquer: pit one group of people against another. They brand pro-union workers as ‘disloyal’ and play up other employees’ fears of being labeled, fired, or blacklisted. This often looks like targeting men vs. women (often saying one group wants to unionize because they aren’t as good at their jobs) older employees vs. younger ones (often saying one group wants to unionize to get rid of the other), Black vs. white (often saying that one group excludes the other or will abandon the other), day shift vs. night shift — whatever strategy will work is the one that the employer will choose.

The consultants will most likely get a small group of employees together to stand in as a ‘Vote No Committee.” This committee may say they want to “save” the organization from the union. The law firm is behind this committee and is training its members to stop organization efforts. They may target employees with the most to lose — single parents, those with young children, people who desperately need their health insurance, and employees with fewer credentials. These employees will send out letters that paint an ugly picture of the union, calling it expensive and making attempts to ‘other’ the union by calling it a third party, when in fact, the workers are the union. They may also be trained to vilify the organizers by claiming that those who are pro-union are looking for special treatment.

The messages coming from the consultants usually lean heavily on the Big Five Lies about labor unions, but can also be tailored to the specific industry involved. The lie I take the most personally is that most unionized workers are white, middle-aged men. Most newly unionized workers are not — they’re young women, and a growing proportion are Black and brown. In 2018, women who were in unions earned 21% more than non-unionized women, and Black Americans who were unionized earned nearly 20% more than Black Americans who were not.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwwymqpS45c — Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explains the Big 5 Lies about labor unions.

If step three doesn’t dissolve the union on the spot, the next two steps go hand-in-hand. The law firm will tell management to increase perks to remind everyone that they already have a great place to work. Employers may take a sudden interest in you and your family, sending gifts, letters, and ‘rewarding’ staff who come out against the union. Workers may hear things like “don’t let a third party come between our wonderful relationship” or “don’t let the fight over a union divide us.” Spontaneous one-on-ones usually become more common. Employers may lean heavily on personal respect, personal fears, and personal flaws. They may hold one-to-one or small group meetings with employees where management says they are “worried about what will happen to you under a new agreement.”

Everybody does it, including the most profitable company in the world: Amazon. There are several points in the process where the employer can legally delay. Check out this infographic for more information:

When an election case involves a decision by the Labor Board, the vote is delayed by an average of 198 days. By that point, the main organizers have often been let go, and the initial steam for unionization may have run out. The longer the company can delay, the more likely it is that they can eliminate support for unionization.

Knowing all this, should you still unionize?

YES! And here’s why:

In 2015, researchers from Harvard University compared nonunion workers in highly organized industries to nonunion workers in segments of the labor market with little union presence. After adjusting for core determinants of wages, (like education levels) they found that nonunion workers in strongly unionized industries and areas enjoyed substantially higher pay. The economic benefits of a powerful labor movement extended to unorganized workers as well as union members.

Higher pay in unionized places can often decrease racial and gendered pay gaps. As union membership rose in the 20th century, “African Americans had the highest organization rates of any racial or ethnic group, peaking at more than 40% for African American men and nearly 25% for African American women in the private sector. These exceptional organization rates helped narrow racial pay disparities by raising African American wages. Had no union decline occurred from the early 1970s on, black-white wage gaps among women would be between 13% and 30% lower, and black males’ weekly wages would be an estimated US$50 higher.” — https://theconversation.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-us-labor-unions-and-why-they-still-matter-38263

The Labor Education and Research Center also put it simply: “ Across the country, if you compare two people who work in the same occupation and same industry, with the same education and experience, but one has a union and the other does not — the person with a union on average makes more than 10% higher wages and has a 20–205% better chance of getting health insurance or a pension through their job.”

Salaries and pensions aren’t the only benefits. Employees who have collective bargaining agreements often negotiate more reasonable schedules, more job training and more accountability from leadership.

“New York’s Building Trades Employers Association, which represents more than 1,300 contractors in New York City, recently released new statistics using data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It found that union construction workers in the Big Apple are five times less likely to suffer a fatal accident compared to their nonunion counterparts. Dominique Bravo, director of Pathways 2 Apprenticeship, stated in a New York Times op-ed that nonunion contractors make up 90% of the construction companies listed in OSHA’s “Severe Violator Enforcement Program” for New York.

“Union workers are safer because they are better trained and know they will be protected if they refuse to work under dangerous conditions,” Bravo wrote.

Similar studies show the rise of right-to-work laws linked to an increase in worker deaths and that construction firms that employ union workers are more likely to engage in safety best practices and training.” — http://www.ibew.org/media-center/Articles/19Daily/1912/191203_TheNumbers

https://scholars.org/contribution/how-unions-help-prevent-workplace-deaths-united-states

The presence of a union allows employees to express their thoughts or opinions without fear of reprisal. This gives everyone a chance to advocate for a better environment and request changes be made without worrying whether they will be fired for questioning the wrong person. Just as the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government check and balance each other, unions exist to check employers and to ensure protections like freedom of speech.

But what if you already have a voice at work? What if you are a lucky person who has had overwhelmingly positive experiences with a string of excellent managers? That was the case with German Lopez, who was originally against forming a union at the company where he worked, Vox media. He writes, “The first thing I learned is not everyone had the same experience; even in a company that genuinely does try to be the best in digital media, things can slip through the cracks, and a bad manager can make a world of difference. I had always gotten along very well with my bosses at Vox, but that could change in one corporate reshuffling. I also started to worry about the future: What if, in a very volatile journalism industry, I’m laid off, or Vox is sold off to another company? Who’s to say the next owners would be as good as the current ones?” This sentiment can be found across industries and across companies. Even at the best ones, workers deserve union representation.

Still have questions? Here are some condensed answers!

A big benefit for employees in forming and joining a union is the increased bargaining they have with their employers. One worker likely cannot get their employer to agree to new safety measures or a wage increase, but more workers have a better chance. This is an example of collective bargaining.

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is an agreement reached between the employer and the labor union that will govern the employment for the employee-members of that labor union for a specific amount of time (often 2 to 5 years). After the contract expires, the employer and the union must bargain in good faith for a successive agreement. While the bargaining occurs, the terms of the contract generally continue.

The union’s negotiation team is often comprised of a business agent and a union steward, who is also an employee, as well as the business’s legal representation and HR representation. During the collective bargaining process, the union makes proposals to management and concessions in the spirit of compromise. When the bargaining committee reaches an agreement with management, the union takes it to membership for ratification, or a majority vote.

If you work in a right-to-work state, all union dues are voluntary, as well as union membership. This means that even if a workplace unionizes, no employee will be forced to join, but they will still benefit from the agreements that the union helps to negotiate. CBAs commonly dictate wages, vacation time, working hours, working conditions, and employee benefits. These provisions are enforced by the labor union to ensure that employees are treated fairly.

There are two types of union elections. The first takes place to find out if a majority of employees want to be represented by a union. Employers will attempt all seven strategies explained above as employees organize and plan this initial vote. The second vote takes place after the first, if it is successful. The second vote is for those who wish to be represented — there will be elections to determine officers and make decisions about priorities to focus on in the collective bargaining agreement.

If you are in the process of attempting to form a union, or even considering it, I hope that this article helps you better prepare. Be ready for these strategies, and have a response toolkit ready if you can.

I owe so much of this article to the AFL website and to the Union Busting Playbook. To find out if you are eligible to join a union, check out this site: https://www.unionplus.org/page/how-join-union

Early Childhood Educator. New Orleans, Louisiana. Travel Writer — Fodor’s Essential Guide to Vietnam.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store