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Want to Stay Union-Free Recognize Early Signs of Organizing

July 22, 1999
Related Topics: Labor Relations, Featured Article
Issue: Your company has a 35-year history of remaining union free. However, a company down the road, which had also boasted a union-free status of nearly 40 years, just lost a representation election of its janitorial employees. Should you be worried that the union might come knocking on your company’s door next?

Answer: The early stages of a union organizing campaign can be difficult to detect. The key is to train supervisors on the early signs of union activity so that early detection can lead to a quick response from management—before the union can get a foothold in the workforce. Management has the right to lawfully explain its position on unions, and it should exercise that right.

Early signs of union organizing usually take the form of changes in the normal patterns of the workforce. Therefore, the more management knows and is sensitive to how employees typically conduct themselves at work, the more likely it will be able to detect any changes in routine that may mean a union is in the work environment.

CHECKLIST: Early signs of union organizing

The possible signs are numerous and not limited to the following examples:

  • Small groups of employees gather in unusual places, the water fountain or the restroom, and disperse when management approaches. If they are discussing something they do not want management to hear, it could be union activity.
  • Restrooms become very popular. Some employees are reluctant to sign authorization cards out in the open and restrooms provide the perfect place for such activity.
  • There is a great deal of bustling about during breaks, lunches, and other nonwork time at the job. Rather than sitting around talking and relaxing during these times, employees seem busy doing things not concretely related to their jobs.
  • Employees suddenly start asking many questions about their benefits and company policies. Often the questioning is done by groups of employees rather than individuals and the tone may be demanding and hostile rather than inquiring.
  • New groups of employees form and new leaders emerge. Or, formerly popular employees are suddenly disliked or ridiculed by their co-workers.
  • Individuals act out of character. People who were always friendly become sullen and quiet. People who used to come late now arrive on time. People who were typically sloppy workers, take more time with their job and produce a better product. Those workers who used to be careful in their job performance suddenly slip in their work product or show less respect for supervision. A new employee may go out of his way to show enthusiasm and interest in his job.
  • Anti-company graffiti appears on the walls of restrooms, locker rooms, and other places frequented by employees.
  • Strangers or former employees appear on the premises or are in contact with employees as they come to or leave work.
  • Employees or outsiders ask for names and addresses of employees or are seen copying names from lockers, time clocks or any other lists.
  • Employees or outsiders copy the license numbers off of employee cars.
  • Employees form new social groups or move from one group of employees to another during coffee breaks, meal periods or carpooling.
  • Rumors increase that are often started to deliberately cause confusion within the workforce.
  • Employees stop talking to managers or supervisors during walks through the workplace. Groups of employees stop talking when a manager or supervisor approaches.
  • Employees friendly to management stop receiving grapevine rumors and cannot report what is going on in the workplace.
  • Employees begin coming to work abnormally early or late and start meeting with other employees.
  • A discharged employee begins hanging around the workplace with a stranger.
  • An abnormal degree of absenteeism occurs.
  • Employees uncharacteristically try to irritate a supervisor by defiance of orders or otherwise. Often unions will attempt to provoke a test case to show how they can represent employees in trouble with management. For example, employees may refuse to work because the "pay is too low." This may be under the instruction of a union since they cannot be lawfully fired for such a complaint--they must be treated as economic strikers.
  • Employees begin to talk about "rights," "seniority," "security" or other union buzzwords.
  • Customers seem to be buying at every counter but are instead engaging employees in lengthy conversation. Outside delivery people hang around and approach several employees.

One of these signs alone would not indicate the presence of a union in the work environment. But if several of these alterations in customary patterns appear suddenly, one possible explanation is union organizing activity.

Lesson for management.
Staying in constant communication with the workforce and remaining responsive to the needs of employees will not only create a happier, more reliable, more productive workforce, it is also good preventive labor relations.

Many times unions organize by handing out leaflets to employees as they enter or leave a workplace. What should management do if it sees someone handing out papers at a plant gate? The answer is simple—take a leaflet and read it. Only then can management be sure if it is experiencing the early signs of union activity.

Source: CCH Incorporated is a leading provider of information and software for human resources, legal, accounting, health care and small business professionals. CCH offers human resource management, payroll, employment, benefits, and worker safety products and publications in print, CD, online and via the Internet. For more information and other updates on the latest HR news, check our Web site at

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.

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