For the last generation, many HR departments haven’t had to pay much attention to labor relations. The situation may change drastically if the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law—a prospect that improved dramatically with the victory of President-elect Barack Obama and increased Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill.
The bill would allow a collective bargaining unit to form if a majority of employees sign cards authorizing one. It is the top priority for organized labor, which spent tens of millions of dollars on grass-roots campaigning to put Obama and Democrats in office.
Under current law, companies can insist on a
secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Other provisions of the bill would send first contract negotiations to binding arbitration within 120 days if an agreement is not reached and substantially raise fines for companies trying to impede union campaigns.
Even if the bill doesn’t pass as originally written, observers expect that Obama will sign some form of it. For instance, the card-check requirement might be dropped in favor of a provision mandating union elections within a few days of a petition being filed.
The pressure is on HR departments to get up to speed on union organizing. "Corporations are about to face a shortage of people who have experience in this area of human resources," says Stan Wilson, managing partner of Elarbee Thompson in Atlanta.
Snap union elections will force employers to conduct education campaigns at a moment’s notice. In an NLRB election, they have several weeks to do so. HR will have to explain pay and benefits more often and keep its finger on the pulse of job satisfaction.
"Employers are going to have to be prepared to talk to employees all the time," says Leslie Silverman, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission member who is now a partner at Proskauer Rose in Washington. "They’re going to have to be great communicators."
Companies may also seek help on collective bargaining and union relations by turning to outside counsel.
"Employment law firms are gearing up their labor law practices for the advent of the Employee Free Choice Act," says Dave Riewald, a partner at Bullard, Smith, Jernstedt Wilson in Portland, Oregon. "It will mean a tremendous amount of work."
Riewald is president of Worklaw Network, an organization that tries to address the need. It’s a collection of boutique labor and employment law firms with 350 attorneys in 37 offices across 27 states.
The breadth of the group positions it to help employers respond to a spike in union organizing. Worklaw firms emphasize their intimate knowledge of their legal jurisdictions.
In labor and employment law, "You need to know the local decision makers," Riewald says.
In a few months, HR professionals will have to know how to get help quickly when unions come calling.
Workforce Management, January 19, 2009, p. 21 -- Subscribe Now!