Unionization at a Large Service Company

The workplace became a quiet, angry battleground, and productivity took a nosedive.

October 30, 2000
The service sector is the industry most often targeted for unionization rightnow, whether it’s hotel workers in Las Vegas or a Los Angeles "Justicefor Janitors" strike. The health-care industry also is seeing increasedactivity, from hospital workers to (imagine this) doctors. It’s a little lessnoticeable among large companies because it’s not as if an entire motel chainbecomes unionized at once.

Most often, unionization in large companies is done in bits and pieces,because that’s the easiest way to get that necessary 30 percent of the cards.And here’s where we pick up where we left off in the example.

Unions like to splinter large companies into narrow organizational units,which is perfectly legal under the NLRA. Unions segment a company into what theycall communities of interest: groups whose needs are unified by geographicproximity, physical proximity, commonality of supervision, or personnelprograms. Take a hospital: you have a physicians’ unit, a nurses’ unit, acertified professionals’ unit, a maintenance crew unit, a clerical unit, aguard unit, and so on. Each unit can be approached separately.

One large East Coast service company discovered that its workforce wassimilarly segmented. It hadn’t conducted what professional union-busters calla bargaining unit vulnerability assessment. This is highly recommended for largecompanies: An analyst reviews your workforce as a union would, in segments, soHR can keep its eye on discontent or brewing union trouble unit by unit, a moreefficient way of remaining union-free and addressing problems early on.

The fact that the large company, which we’ll call FatCat, hadn’tconducted such an assessment is notsurprising, because it didn’t really have much of an HR interest in potentialunionization. In fact, it hadn’t occurred to the company that a union couldtouch it, given its impressive collection of lawyers. The firm didn’t evenhave a policy detailing what communications could and couldn’t be distributedthrough bulletin boards or e-mail, afirst (and very simple) line of defense against unionization.

"Large companies should have professional HR people who can make ittheir business to make sure employees are aware that their company prefers to beunion-free, that they know they have a good level of benefits, and their safetyrecord is great," says Norm Davis, a labor and employment attorney withMiami-based Steel Hector & Davis.

Unfortunately, FatCat didn’t keep a cool head. It instead went on theattack; it fought the union through its lawyers, and never reached out toemployees. In short, it smacked down the union through sheer force of power andmoney. It won, but not really. Because the job market was strong, employeesbegan quickly drifting away to jobs that offered more involvement and respect.The company began hemorrhaging workers.

And the ones who didn’t leave? Before the attempt, they were reluctant tooffer comments about improving jobs or increasing productivity. Now, theyactually kept any advice to themselves, determined not help the company in anyway. The workplace became a quiet, angry battleground between a company thatdidn’t get why its employees were so angry (they had fine wages and benefits,after all) and employees who didn’t have one whit of loyalty to their company.Productivity took a nosedive.

In the end, sometimes a company has to play rough with unions. If a union istruly unwanted and a company has the resources to fight it, of course it will.However, as in all employment relations, there’s a smart way and a not-smartway. Had the company reached out to employees and explained its actions, itmight have kept a little faith.

In the end, there’s no magic cloak that will protect your company fromunionization. But there are courses of action that HR can take to help preventorganization in the first place, or, if it must happen, to make it actuallywork. If you find your company under attack, refrain from the knee-jerk reactionthat unions are organizing just to organize. Take a company-wide look, and planaction from there.

Workforce,November 2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 86-87 -- Subscribenow!