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Monday, February 04, 2013

Stages of a Union Campaign

For years I have had to endure the eye rolls of managers when I would talk to them about policies and procedures to keep unions at bay. The "that will never happen here" argument never quite went away over the decades when union membership was in decline. While it is not making a huge comeback, the Obama administration's friendliness with big labor and rule changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have made organizing easier than it has been in years. Big labor, to its credit, is also getting smarter in its recruitment of young ideologues as organizers and its use of social media.

So it comes as little surprise to me that I find myself fighting my first union organizing campaign in years.  A client in the upper Midwest has been petitioned and now I find myself enjoying the Great Lakes snow in February helping to defend them and prepare for a mid-March vote. 

Working with the management here I see how much understanding of unions and union organizing attempts has diminished during the years when the threat was so remote.  So for the sake of a new generation of managers here is a quick overview of what happens in a campaign.

Stage 1: Card Signing
Usually someone from the workforce who is disgruntled over some issue, large or small, calls the union and asks for their help.  Typically the unions, being businesses, won't commit their staff time or resources until then know if the local employees are serious.  They will supply the complainant, who at that point becomes an in-house organizer, with cards declaring that the undersigned wishes to be represented by the union for negotiating all terms and conditions of employment. The in-house organizer then goes around trying to convince co-workers to sign cards.

Stage 2: Petition
The NLRB will petition the employer to hold a union election if the union can present signed representation cards for at least 30% of the workforce.  That can be the whole workforce (a "wall to wall bargaining unit") or some subset like maintenance workers or nurses.  To win the union must have a simple majority (50% + 1 vote) so they will want to have 60% or more cards signed before they will commit their resources and petition the NLRB for a vote.

By the time you see a petition you have had activity for a long time.  This will usually involve home visits after hours and on weekends by in-house and paid union organizers.  They will have developed a list of your employees and their addresses and phone numbers developed by the in-house organizers or someone sympathetic to their cause in an office position such as payroll.

Stage 3: Campaign
Once the petition has been filed a date is set for the vote.  During this time the employer cannot make any promises of fix any problems or change any of the terms and conditions of employment.  It cannot threaten, intimidate, promise or spy on union activity, knows in HR circles as the TIPS rule. During this time it can interview employees as to their concerns so long as they don't cross the line into interrogation, put on presentations to its employees explaining their case against unionization, and individual supervisors can give their own opinions. 24 hours before the vote all campaigning has to stop.

The Vote
On election day an NLRB representative monitors a secret paper ballot where employees mark "yes" or "no" and place their votes in a ballot box.  If it has become more automated than that over the years I haven't heard about it but it is possible. The votes are counted and the side who has 50% +1 vote wins.

If the company wins the campaign is over.  If the union wins then contract negotiations start. That is a topic for another post.  Frankly I've never gotten that far; the three campaigns on which I've worked have all been wins for the company.  We'll see by mid-March if I am 4-0 or 3-1. As for the "it can't happen here" eyeroll, come up here and trudge through the snow with me and tell me that.

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