Union Membership Losses Could Make Your Company a Target For Union Organizing

February 18, 2010

On Jan. 22, 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on union membership in the United States. The numbers were not good for unions.

The report states that unions lost approximately 834,000 private sector jobs last year. This caused union membership in the private sector to drop from 7.6% to 7.2%. The largest losses came in manufacturing, construction, information, and transportation and warehousing. By contrast, union membership rose slightly in the public sector. As a result of these trends, and for the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of union members in the United States are employed in the public sector.

Union reaction to these numbers came in the form of two consistent themes. First, unions claim this decline underscores the need for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). In it current form, among other things, EFCA can be used by unions to take away the existing right of workers to vote on the question of union representation by secret ballot. Second, unions agree they need to step up organizing efforts to increase membership.

Congress probably will not act on any version of EFCA in the near future. This does not mean, however, that employers can stop monitoring the status of the bill and relax. Indeed, unions are not relaxing and have stated they need to organize regardless of what happens to EFCA.

Employers should take the unions’ comments as a warning. Employers should also use this time to assess their vulnerabilities and take necessary preventative and proactive action. Some of these steps can include:

  • Determine whether you are in an industry targeted by a union. If so, train managers and front line supervisors now on how to recognize signs of union organizing, and how to effectively and legally address such activity.
  • Assess the quality of your employee relations now. Poor working and personal relationships between management and other employees are among the top reasons employees try to organize unions. Good employee relations are not hard to accomplish, but rarely occur by accident.
  • Assess the quality of your employee communications tools. Poor communications is another primary reason employees turn to unions.
  • Assess the working conditions in your workplace now. A safe, clean and civil workplace is one of your best defenses against an organizing campaign.
  • Assess your policies and practices to ensure they are implemented fairly and consistently. Favoritism and unfair treatment are major causes of organizing campaigns.
  • Consider whether your company should conduct training for managers, current employees and new hires on the meaning and effect of signing union authorization cards. In this case, an ounce of prevention just might be worth a pound of cure.

The time to address vulnerability to a union organizing campaign is before it starts. The assessment process can lead to better employee relations, better employee morale, a safer workplace, improvements in the ability to recruit and retain the highest quality workforce, and increases to the bottom line.

For questions or assistance in analyzing your company’s vulnerability to union organizing or developing practices and training to address this issue, please contact the author or any other member of McGuireWoods’ Labor & Employment team.