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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Fuss About the Employee Free Choice Act

Over the next few weeks we'll hear more in the press about this piece of legislation, called by some informally as the "Card Check Act", as it winds its way through Congress. Its a bad bill but it may pass anyway as the AFL-CIO has pumped a reported $500m in campaign contributions to both parties in what may be its last stand as an organized body. I say this bill is bad because it will make union campaigns more prevalent, more intimidating and more prone to employee-on-employee threats and violence. I'm not quoting the Chamber of Commerce line on this; I've seen it with my own eyes working on the company side in three Steelworker campaigns in Kentucky.

To understand this bill we first have to visit the process of how a workplace becomes unionized, so I'll digress just briefly.

Union elections are governed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency whose members are appointed by the President. Republican presidents tend to stack it with pro-business members and the Democrats stack it with pro-labor members. Its regulations are basically unchanged from decade-to-decade, but how those regs are interpreted changes with each administration.

Under NLRB rules a labor union can petition for an election if it has cards signed from at least 30% of the workforce. A union will begin a card signing drive, person-to-person and often in secret. At some point in the drive if/when word gets around the workforce the union will officially notify the company that it has in-house employee organizers and lists their names. Those individuals are (supposedly) then protected from termination/retaliation by the company.

Once the union can certify to the NLRB that it has 30% cards signed the NLRB notifies the company of an impending election and sets a date. A "campaign" then starts in the open during which time the company campaigns to its workers why it should stay union-free, and the union campaigns as to why the workers should vote for union representation. Finally a secret ballot is held on company property with NLRB observers who certify the results and notify both the company and union. The winning margin for either side is 50% plus 1 vote.

If the workplace votes union, negotiations begin. The union and company can agree to terms, or sometimes they don't. When they do, a contract is signed and the workplace implements the controls and restrictions of a union shop. When they don't, the union may or may not call a strike, after which time the company more often than not hires permanent replacement workers and continues operations.

So what's wrong with this system? Plenty. Unions often use threats, intimidation, and promises it can't keep to get cards signed. Because of this fact, which they know well, no union I know of will petition the NLRB for an election if they don't have at least 60% cards signed. NLRB regs say that only the party with the authority to make good on their promises is bound by its regs to tell the truth in a campaign. Since the union has zero authority to make anything happen, it can promise anything and does. In other words, most unions cheat.

Problem is, so do most companies. Officially a company can't Threaten Intimidate Promise or Spy (TIPS). To do so creates an "Unfair Labor Practice" charge and they can be fined by the NLRB. That's all fine and good, but the fines are a token amount when compared to the added overhead and lost productivity of going union, so most companies cheat. Most workplaces prone to unionization are semi-skilled occupations for which employers can find and train permanent replacement workers. If the company loses it has two nuclear options; replace the workforce in its intirety or close the operation and move it to another state or country. All that is expensive so there's a financial incentive to cheat big.

So what's the solution? According to the unions, who basically wrote the Employee Free Choice Act, the problem is the election. Since companies cheat during elections, the unions propose that we do away with them and have the NLRB certify a union based solely on card signing. In order to keep companies from negotiating too forcefully after that, the company will have 90 days to come to terms with the union before an NLRB arbiter will be appointed to hear both sides and mandate the terms of the contract to the company. The bill will prohibit replacement workers.

Any good organizer will tell you that getting cards signed is the easiest part of the election. I have seen wild promises of promotions and pay raises, I've seen women pulled into restrooms and manhandled until they agreed to sign cards. I've seen people threatened in parking lots to get them to sign cards. People sign the cards and avoid the intimidation knowing that they have a secret ballot and can vote their wishes without fear. Employee Free Choice, ironically, will deny people in the workplace the opportunity to vote their will and conscience free from intimidation.

The solution to the current system's problems is as simple as raising the fines and penalties for unfair labor practices. The existing NLRB system worked well for decades up until the point where it became far more economically feasible to cheat rather than to follow the rules for both sides. Keep the system, multiply the existing fines x 10, pull business licenses for both sides in cases of repeated violations, and keep the private ballot. That provides employees with the most free choice.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Finding Your Next Job

MORE magazine weighed in this month on the use of web technology in finding your next job. Their thesis was that the game has changed; nice resumes on Crane stationary with good cover letters have been replaced with social media, a personal web page about your professional abilities, and a web marketing strategy. In the last year I've probably gotten an equal number of unsolicited resumes and unsolicited social media contacts (from Facebook friend requests to LinkIn invitations).

With a tough job market its an easy sell to say to a job seeker that they aren't getting results because they aren't using the right technology. Unfortunately that's not totally true. Technology is a work tool, much like in an earlier tech era your tools might have included a lathe or a hammer. Updating to more modern tools (let's just say a power lathe and a pneumatic hammer) may increase the speed of a process, but it doesn't change the basic process.

You build a house from the foundation to the frame to the roof, plumbing and wiring, exterior walls, and then interior work. That hasn't changed even though power tools have sped the process. You still have to do the job right; the roof can't leak, the wiring must work, and all the walls have to be square (unless you're Beazer and then all bets are off...but I digress).

Like home building, the basics of job search haven't changed although the tools have improved. You still find a job through networking and reputation. The use of social media and email can speed the communications process in helping you find open positions and getting the word out that you're looking for work. You still have to interview well and close the deal (land the job) and that involves preparation and research like it always has.

In the last 15 months 177 people have left our company. We pledged, as an HR department, to help anyone who'd let us and to keep following up with people until they found work. We checked in this past week and about 65% have found a job. Some have landed elsewhere in better positions for more money; others have found "a" job from a lateral move to a survival job. A handful (maybe 10%) are going back to school, staying home with children, etc...

In talking with some of these good people it becomes obvious that in spite of all the new technology people still get their next job, first and foremost, through networking. I met a representative from one Nashville non-profit at a convention in Atlanta. He told me he was looking to hire a particular position. I gave him a recommendation and he smiled, telling me that someone else at Thomas Nelson had already sent that person's resume to him. The lady had an interview the next Monday and is currently a candidate.

Now don't miss what happened in this example. The former employee had such a good reputation that, without her doing anything, a co-worker and an exec at her former employer put her name out by word-of-mouth.

I have also fielded a considerable number of reference calls on our former employees. Similarly, when I've recommended someone I've often gotten the, "I'll call around and check them out" response from the prospective employer. This aspect of job hunting hasn't changed since the advent of non-farm jobs. I have not, to date, heard of anyone getting hired from a LinkIn recommendation. Reference checking is still done over the phone, person to person.

The secret to finding your next job is 90% your reputation for doing great work and your personal brand for being a person of integrity at your current job.

Social Media can help, but only so much. MORE magazine is right when it says social media invitations have replaced resumes; I throw unsolicited social media invitations in my Outlook trash with the same speed that I throw unsolicited paper resumes in the waste basket under my desk.

So how do you find your next job, and what is the role of the new technology in doing so? Its a two-fold mixture of old and new tech.
  1. You need a good resume. That "content" is just like book content and can be delivered on paper, via email, or through social media.
  2. You need a professional email address from which to send resumes. One friend of mine at a religious non-profit showed me a very nice looking resume received from "hotgirl69@..." and needless to say it went in the trash.
  3. You need to tell everyone who has a favorable opinion of you that you're looking for a job. Networking through people who would give you positive word-of-mouth puts positive buzz into the marketplace.
  4. Follow that up by sending them a copy of your resume so that they can forward or hand it to someone they know.
  5. Google yourself and make sure that any information out there is positive. You probably can't do anything about it if its not, but you need to be able to respond to a question about it if asked during an interview.
  6. You need a web presence, open to public view, such as a LinkIn page or personal home page. That will put positive information, that you planted, out for a web searcher to find.
  7. Get samples of your work together. Contact former colleagues to retrieve non-proprietary samples of things your done on the job. You should keep samples of work you do anyway. Showing an interviewer a physical example of something you've done is much more powerful than just saying you've done it. In HR we get lied to a lot during interviews.

Most importantly, if you still have a job (and remember, most people still do) now is the time to build your brand and reputation. If you're a kiss-up, kick-down politician who walks over people in the workplace, social media won't help you. The kind of conversations that happen when people check your references are what we in the HR world refer to as karma.

If you're known for quality work, integrity, professionalism, and for being the kind of person people want to work with then you'll sell yourself. Social media well-implemented will then help you do that faster.