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Seven Ways to Stay Ahead of the Unionizing Game

August 6, 2009
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Related Topics: Labor Relations, Workforce Planning
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The much-debated Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize under a card-check system, likely would provide the biggest shake-up in the labor landscape in decades.

But a March survey of nearly 8,400 human resources executives by HR Solutions International Inc., a Chicago consultancy, found that 60 percent of respondents didn’t know what the Employee Free Choice Act was or were waiting to see what happened with the act before developing an action plan.

That’s a mistake, experts say, particularly with an employee-friendly administration that has signaled its intent to support the legislation.

“For small businesses especially, the notion that they could be that easily unionized [with card check] is just very foreign to them,” says Greg Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, based in Oak Brook. “Being proactive is priority No. 1.”

Here’s what you can do to stay ahead of the unionizing game:

• Share your views on unions with your employees. “From the first moment of employment, you need to communicate to your employees that you are a team, that every job is critical and that you don’t believe a third party is necessary to communicate ideas and concerns,” says John Raudabaugh, a partner in the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.

• Keep the lines of communication open. Raudabaugh recommends regular meetings to update employees on business issues and to thank them for a job well done. “Continuous communication is absolutely fundamental,” he says.

• Offer employees the best place to work that you can. This includes providing benefits such as competitive wages and paid vacations and holidays, and ensuring your employees feel they’re part of the team through training and regular meetings, says Marc Gordon, president of the Chicago-based Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry that has been in the unions’ cross hairs. “Hotels that are successful have to take care of their employees,” Gordon says. “They’re the ones taking care of the guests, and that’s ultimately what makes a hotel grow. You need to make them feel part of the company and give them the opportunity to be successful.”

• Make sure employees understand the total value of their compensation packages, including health insurance, 401(k) or pension contributions, tuition reimbursement, time off and anything else you offer. “Package your benefits so it demonstrates your relationship to your employees in a way that they may not have considered before,” says Amy Kohn, an employment law consultant at Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Illinois. “Market it to your employees the same way you would present it to prospective employees. The same things that are attractive when you’re recruiting talent continue to be valuable to employees.”

• Empower managers to fix problems as they arise. Companies that quickly address employee concerns build trust. “If you have fair practices and there is trust and faith in management, a union becomes less important to employees,” says Fred Crandall, a senior human resources consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Chicago.

• Hire an experienced attorney to guide you, especially if you’re dealing with a union for the first time. “A business agent for the union is writing contracts every day,” says Bob DeBolt, owner of F.H. Ayer Manufacturing in Chicago Heights, Illinois, whose employees have been unionized for 70 years. “You need to level the playing field. If you don’t know the rules, you can get yourself in trouble.”

• Keep your cool. Recognize that, at least at first, dealing with union representation may be uncomfortable. “Patience is a virtue here,” says Arthur Smith, an attorney in Chicago with labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart. “Keeping the lid on one’s temper is an essential trait.”

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