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Unionization at a Small E-Commerce Company

October 30, 2000
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The little guys are being hit the hardest in unionization attempts. Mostly it’sbecause in this market, they’re also the new guys. They’re in the dark aboutkeeping unions at bay. There’s too much else to think about. "Smallcompanies, particularly start-up companies, have tremendous exposure to unionorganizing," says Marty Payson, a senior partner in the Jackson Lewis lawfirm, who lectures companies on staying union-free.

"We’re seeing all sorts of organizing in situations in which newbusinesspersons are flying by the seat of their pants and have given littlethought to the whole variety of employee-relations issues. They’ve not paidnear enough attention to HR."

That description perfectly fits one young West Coast e-commerce company,which we’ll call InTrouble.com, that had doubled its staff in a year and wassimply adding bodies to add bodies, drafting HR policies when it could, andtrying to pacify employees rather than really deal with issues. The promotionpolicy was a mess; the rewards and recognition program was non-existent.Employees were disciplined rather than worked with. In short, havoc. It was thecall center that a local union rang up first.

A quick (and it should be noted, general) lesson in union workings: A unionhas theright under the National Labor Relations Act to try to organize where itwill. The union must get 30 percent of a company’s employees to sign cardsrequesting unionization. If they get that 30 percent, the union can demand anelection. If not, they can’t. It’s not, be warned, quite that cut-and-dried,because a union can organize within small units of employees, making thelikelihood of nabbing a 30 percent approval quite likely (more on that later).Once a union has paid a visit, the most a company can really legally do is tryto convince employees that the company is better off union-free. And that’sexactly what InTrouble.com decided to do.

A small company has some unique things going for and against it in aunionizationattempt. A strike can pretty much cripple it; and it is often easier to getcards signed in a familial, interwoven workplace, especially if there are someserious pro-union forces on your payroll (and there usually are: that’s howunions are often alerted to small companies’ vulnerabilities). Plus there’susually no one person assigned to handle labor relations, so the tendency is topanic.

"The first reaction of many small employers is to go out and hire amanagement consultant or labor attorney who has a reputation for winningelections," Clark says. "Often that means doing whatever they have toin order to win. It’s not unusual at all for employers to fire workers leadingunion efforts." And that is illegal under the NLRA (not to mention a rottenbusiness practice).

But on the bright side, a cozier small-company feel allows for an appeal on amore personal level, and that’s what InTrouble.com did. Small employers havethe luxury of being at least somewhat tied in to office talk, so InTrouble.comquickly identified the pro-union leaders in its workforce and gave them whatthey wanted: an audience for their complaints and an acknowledgment that, whilethey were causing the company some discomfort, they were indeed leaders.

Most insiders will tell you that among most companies, the issues that bringunions aren’t wages and benefits; if that were the case, the oft-malignedfast-food industry would be crawling with unionization efforts, which it isn’t."The real issue goes to employee treatment," says Payson,"according employees dignity, respect, recognition, appreciation, andinvolvement."

The HR staff of InTrouble.com met with its group of pro-union employees foranentire day, hashing out point by point what the problem was. They did wanthigher wages, but most of their complaints revolved around treatment of theworkers. They wanted a voice. The HR group wrote down every complaintindividually and assessed whether there was something to be done about it.

They then held a company meeting. The agenda, presented directly toemployees, was this: convince them the company didn’t need a union. The headof HR said at the outset that a wage hike wasn’t possible at the time, andthen proceeded to break down how much the company was making, how the money wasdoled out, and how much profit would be necessary in order for the requestedincrease to occur for the following year. He also spoke about things like makingone HR staffer a point person for employee complaints, and outlined how thosecomplaints would be handled. A progressive discipline policy was fleshed out toinclude how the employee would be informed and assisted in reaching goals. Andan employee involvement system was initiated, withemployees left in charge of deciding just how it would work.

In the end (and experts say this is not a rarity), the employees didn’treally care about a union. They wanted to get their employer’s attention ongenuine workplace quality issues. The company has since had unions sniff around,but no actual attempt has been made at organization. That may be because there’sa new performance criterion for every manager: Help keep the company union-free.

Workforce,November 2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 83-84 -- Subscribenow!

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