Imagine this: You are the proud CEO of a successful company, known as a great place to work, and you open the news to find out that your biggest competitor’s workforce is unionizing. You know about the new wave of organized labor, but you never thought it would happen in your industry. Now you start wondering if you can do the next one.
It’s more than just talking. In 2022, the workers of the United States voted to form more unions than they have in nearly 20 years, and labor is organizing companies in nearly every industry, from Alphabet and Amazon to REI and Trader Joe’s. Railway workers and journalists alike are part of this trend. Even Starbucks baristas — long seen as having some of the best jobs in the service industry — are unionizing. Thanks to social media and digital communication, it’s easier than ever for workers share story about how your company treats them.
If you’re like most business leaders, you’re worried about how unions will affect your company, but your education barely mentions unions, and you lack real-world experience with organized labor. So the obvious next step is to look for outside help. Maybe a law firm or a consultant knows what to do?
Unfortunately, most experts out there subscribe to an old idea: union busting at all costs. That strategy (expressed by experts as “union avoidance”) was created in the 19th century, in response to labor conflicts that sometimes turned violent and bloody, and it was refined half a century ago, by corporate management. The problem is that it ignores the business risks of the modern era – and often encourages companies to breaking the law.
If you respond to labor organizing in a hostile or dismissive manner, you may be putting your company at risk: damage your brand for consumers, poisons productive workplace relationships, and prevents future talent from engaging. If a union eventually forms in your company, you are throwing away an opportunity to build a collaborative relationship. You start from a place of dysfunction. Such problems can weigh on your company for decades.
So how do you avoid such a disaster?
Recently, in partnership with the Aspen Institute and MIT, we worked with a group of business leaders in various industries to find out how they can most constructively respond to the new wave of labor organization. We approach the problem from both academic (building on the research Tom has done for decades) and practical (building on the conversations Roy has had with many companies on the receiving end of this) organize). In this article, we summarize some of our key findings.
Put aside pride
When your workforce organizes, it can feel like a direct attack on your leadership. You may feel defensive, confused, or angry, especially if the organizers single you out, as others do. That may prompt you to argue or blame a “third party.” After all, YOUR The workers may not feel this way, so the operatives of the national union or anyone else must be stirring up their anger.
If you start like this, stop and think about what your workers are actually telling you – about their work experiences and their spending ability. Many CEOs live completely different facts from their workforce and can’t imagine what their entry-level workforce has to do to make their lives work. Unionization campaigns are often the workers’ last resort after they’ve tried to get you heard in a number of other ways.
Sometimes workers just want a voice, through an organization, even if they are satisfied with their pay. Sometimes they want their company to be accountable for your stated values. And it can be bigger than the company. Many workers are fed up (understandably!) with the unfairness of modern American life, and they organize because that’s what works for them. Is it strange or unreasonable for workers to want more pay and more say? Don’t you and the many executives who work for you always want more? (Is a board personally hurt when a CEO asks for more money?)
So put your pride aside, try not to organize personally, and don’t tell the workers what’s available wilderness interest. They are experts in their own lives and interests, and they cannot accept that you – a powerful leader whose reality can be removed from theirs – knows what is best for them. Avoid condescension.
Also, don’t think that the workers will be surprised to spend time with you. Leaders often think that if they only meet with workers face-to-face, the workers will see things from a different perspective and decide not to organize. But workers often find their CEO’s time intimidating or intimidating rather than friendly. They know that these kinds of sittings are not normal modus operandi. They often think that you are proposing to them because you want something from them.
Affirming the legal right of workers to organize
The laws of many countries, including the United States, protect workers’ right to organize. If your workers exercise that right, the best and fairest thing you can do is get out of the way. And here’s yours it shouldn’t be do:
Don’t break the organizers. This is illegal, although many companies try to justify it by claiming that the organizers have violated some policy (which they would never be fired for otherwise). It also immediately creates an us-vs.-them dynamic. You have become a common enemy, uniting the workers against you. Union campaigns sometimes accelerate when companies fire organizers, as has been the case on Amazon.
Avoid making empty statements in support of workers’ rights. Some companies include an employee communication line that says they “respect workers’ decisions.” That usually backfires, because it’s required by law, which means it’s a threat, by implying that the company can choose not to respect the decisions of the workers. Instead, consider actively declaring that you will remain neutral on whether workers organize, as Microsoft did recently.
Avoid the many other ways you might be tempted to break the law. It seems obvious, but, surprisingly, it needs to be said. Your legal advisors can help you understand the limits of what you are allowed to do, whether in the face of a formal union effort or otherwise. legally protected worker actions. (Hint: Even without a union, workers have the right to strike.) Actions that you feel are harmless – like asking a worker to prevent their colleagues from joining a union – can be illegal. Union “avoidance” experts often advise borderline illegal actions, such as explaining that the employee has a better chance of being promoted if they don’t support the union or even asking the employee if they support the union. . These experts often recommend these practices because the penalties are very small. True respect for the law, as low as the bar, will set you apart from many companies and can strengthen you in the eyes of your customers and your workforce.
Ethics and the law provide plenty of room for you to express what you believe. Just be honest about your concerns.
In particular, avoid stunts. Don’t try silly or unrealistic “games” to connect with workers. Senior executives mopping the floor are only reasonable if that is what they do even though the workers are not organizing. No one wants to work with a phony.
Also, don’t do everything the lawyers tell you to do. Employment law firms that are “on the management side” tend to recommend an anti-unionization campaign, with tactics that sometimes push the line of what is legal. If you want to avoid that, you have to decide for yourself how to show up. (Should you let your investment banker control what companies you buy? The decision is ultimately yours.) Your outside counsel may not understand the risks of your business if you follow the old playbook of crushing in the unions.
If your employer surprises you, the best thing you can do is to inform and build a healthy relationship with your employer. Before you act, take a breath and think about whether, in fact, a union is bad for your company – or whether you can actually work with the union to create a better company. The effectiveness of company and union relations comes in large part from your actions. There is evidence that unions can can help a company’s performance — by improving retention, transparency, morale, and even productivity.
Also do your homework. Many business executives tell us that when their company starts organizing, they have to Google “What is a union?” Unions can be very different from each other in how they operate, as can branches within the same union. Many workers are also now organizing in new ways without using the legal form of a union, and many in the labor movement say that unions need reform and are working to change.
If you’re feeling unprepared, or surprised by what’s going on, remember that you’re not alone. Many business leaders in America are currently grappling with how to account for the new wave of organized labor. It’s time to take this challenge seriously — by recognizing that one of the CEO’s most critical skills of the future will be leading the organized workforce.