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Unionization at a Mid-size Retailer

They weren't small enough for the union to totally take over, but not big enough for all-out warfare.

October 30, 2000
Related Topics: Labor Relations
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When a union paid acall to a Midwest retailer, the company dismissed it entirely. It had great wages and benefits, asolid HR department, and a lot of nice extra goodies. What it didn’t know,however, is that it had a thoroughly disillusioned workforce. While the companyflourished, employees didn’t. Sure there was profit-sharing and day-caresubsidies, tuition reimbursement and lunchtime lectures.

But the problem was that employees didn’t really have the time to take thecompany up on any of these goodies. Rather than allowing employees flexiblehours, telecommuting, job sharing, or compressed workweeks, the firm maintaineda culture that valued face time, and lots of it. It wanted employees to put thecompany first, with no questions (and no involvement).

And when the union first approached its clerical department, the firm, whichwe’ll call Smug, Inc., considered playing hardball. But it opted forInTrouble.com’s approach. It convinced employees that they shouldn’t votefor unionization, that things would be different. It ticked off all it had donefor its workforce over the years, and how much more it would do now that it hada second chance. And the company probably believed itself at the time. Theemployees certainly did. They chose not to go down the road to unionization.

"In the first organization drive, employers make a lot of promises. ‘Giveus another chance. If you vote the union out, we’ll make things right.’ Thenthe employers don’t make things right," Clark says. "Even if you winan election, that union can come back in a year, and the win rate on a secondorganization drive is much better than the first."

Which is just what happened at Smug, Inc.

And this time, despite the company’s somewhat feeble protests, the unionwas voted in. The managers could at that point have made a decision to be asadversarial as possible; the union certainly wasn’t running out with a whiteflag after having been shut down once. But the HR leaders were smart. They heldout an olive branch by signing a neutrality clause. What this means is that whenit came to the two other branches of Smug Inc., which were until now union-free,the organization would remain neutral.

If the majority of employees in each location signed cards, the companyagreed it wouldaccept the union without going through the ugly election process. Crazy? No.The union was already in the largest company unit. The two others were doingfine; they showed no sign of interest in unionization. And if they did? Betterto dispense a little goodwill than to engage in a battle the company wouldlikely lose.

In short, once you’re unionized, the more positive and cooperative yourattitude, the better. The union’s not suddenly going to leave just becausethings get nasty. Unions in the past 30 years have gotten quite accustomed tonasty. Your employees will appreciate your cooperation, too. "If you getorganized, the sun will come up tomorrow," Clark says. "Theorganization will continue to operate. Unionization can represent some realpositive opportunities by bringing employees collectively together."

Medium-sized companies are probably the best candidates for quality unionrelations. They’re not small enough that a union simply takes over, but notbig enough so that the sides naturally square off against each other. Smug,Inc., looked to mid-size companies like Saturn for examples of strongunion-employer harmony. HR leaders created union-liaison positions, and set upregular meetings with union leaders. They found that the union’s grievanceprocedure was actually more effective than the company’s former one. It hadmore teeth to it, and truly seemed to resolve disputes that previously hadfestered.

The union also brought new job descriptions and some time restrictions thatforced the company to reconsider how work was divvied up. And it gave employeesa venue for making changes that made their jobs better. Suddenly there was a lotmore talking going on. Would the company have preferred to remain union-free? Ofcourse. But it took advantage of the advantages it could. Smug, Inc., became alot less smug. In the best way.

Workforce,November 2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 84-86 -- Subscribenow!

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