Act now to counsel on labor plans

With a possible Democratic landslide in November, smart firms are beginning serious pre-planning now to craft their future relationship with organized labor.

With a possible Democratic landslide in November, smart firms are beginning serious pre-planning now to craft their future relationship with organized labor.

Only around 10% of the US work force is unionized, but a big D victory should serve to produce a major uptick in labor's clout, especially in the fields where unions have stayed strong - healthcare, transportation, skilled trades, some manufacturing, hospitality, and, of course, the public sector.

The Bush administration's unrelenting animosity toward unions has run both wide and deep. With a Democratic White House and Congress, we'll see a makeover of the National Labor Relations Board, plus new labor-backed federal and state legislation. And employers may confront at least three important developments:

Increased organizing. If you have bargaining units now, expect to see new efforts to corral unaffiliated employees through so-called "neutrality" agreements. If you have a decent-sized work force and no labor representation, be prepared to be the target of an aggressive drive to form new units.

When and if "card check" organizing becomes standard practice, labor's path will be easier because NLRB-sanctioned secret ballot elections will be a thing of the past. All organizers have to do is get 50%-plus-one of an employee group to sign cards indicating they want a union. In that situation, unions win 70% of the time.

Tougher contract bargaining. Employers have had at least a level playing field in bargaining over the past few years. Expensive, outmoded medical benefits and pension plans have been reshaped to be more in line with contemporary realities. But look for a resurgence in interest in both areas, plus bargaining for continuance of cumbersome work rules. Also, unions could seek a much greater role in strategic decision-making.

More corporate campaigns. Big Labor has succeeded recently with its strategy of publicly embarrassing certain high-profile employers. "WakeUp Wal-Mart" and "Wal-Mart Watch," for example, exist solely to bedevil the world's largest retailer and make consumers think before buying from a purportedly socially irresponsible chain. Without a plan to show legitimate CSR, you could be next in line for a union determined to make customers shun your company.

So what can PR pros do? Discuss these questions with your senior leadership team, then research and enact a sensible plan:

1. What kind of workplace do we really have here? What things can we do to improve staff satisfaction before unions knock on the door?
2. What's our position on organized labor - wildly opposed, neutral, or basically supportive?
3. What would be the major downsides and possible upsides to having new or more aggressive bargaining units here?
4. How likely is current staff to support a greater labor presence? Could that hurt us with recruiting?
5. What is labor's role at our competition? Do they have any significant cost advantages?
6. Are customers likely to support labor's position in a corporate campaign?
7. Are core suppliers and vendors highly unionized and could relations with them be disrupted?
8. Are there prominent elected officials where we operate who are likely to support organized labor?
9. Do we have the right team in place?

Marilyn Hawkins is a corporate communications consultant based in Ashland, OR.

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