Tips From the Trenches

‘You have to educate yourself,’ says the owner of a landscaping company that was shut out of a job site because her firm wasn’t unionized. Christy Webber panicked and agreed to contracts with two unions that wanted to sign her employees.

March 6, 2009
In 2000, shut out of a job site because her landscaping company wasn’t unionized, Christy Webber panicked and agreed to contracts with two unions that wanted to sign her employees.

    Today, Webber, 47, president of Chicago-based Christy Webber Landscapes, wishes she’d done her homework before that abrupt initiation.

    "I was an idiot," she says. "I had no idea how it worked."

    About 200 of her 250 employees are now union members, and Webber says she’s fine with the terms of their agreements. But she figures she’s spent at least $25,000 in legal fees sorting out her rights, and she says she’s paying workers more than other landscape contractors who banded together to bargain with the unions.

    "You have to educate yourself, because you don’t even know if you can trust your damn lawyers," says Webber, whose company had revenue last year of $19.7 million. "And you need to organize yourself before your people do—you need to get together with others in your industry to negotiate together. It’s kind of like children: If there are more of them than you, they can gang up on you."

    Other tips from the trenches:

Pay attention to employees
   If you don’t have a union now, conduct a "vulnerability audit," says James Baird, a partner at law firm Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago. That’s a fancy way of asking whether employees are happy.

    "It recommends changes in practices, procedures and sometimes manpower assignments to improve employee morale and productivity and reduce the likelihood that employees will support a labor union," Baird says.

    It’s also a reminder that for all the effort expended trying to bust unions, employers would do better to look at themselves.

    "Employers have to operate like they’re in a continuous, permanent union-free campaign, which means analyzing their policies and compensation and how they’re treating employees," says Mark Spognardi, a partner at law firm Arnstein & Lehr in Chicago. "Unions don’t organize employers. Employers organize themselves because they don’t pay attention to their employees."

    Be careful what you say
If a union drive is brewing, don’t make threats or fire or interrogate employees. Don’t make promises that are conditioned on staying union-free. And don’t spy on people.

    But "you can give employees truthful information about what’s happened at other companies that have had unions," Spognardi says. Using the example of the United Auto Workers union and the Detroit Three carmakers, for instance, "you can say that unionization doesn’t necessarily guarantee job security."

Play nice
   And once you have a union?

    "It’s all going to be up to that first contract," Spognardi says, so bargain in good faith and try to avoid going to arbitration.

    Then take a page from David Goss, general manager of Imperial Zinc Corp., a South Side Chicago foundry with $75 million in revenue and 22 of 35 employees unionized by the Teamsters.

    "Assess what their needs are, and by all means convey to them what your needs are," says Goss, 46. "It’s a lot easier to deal with the union if you have a good relationship."