For decades, when companies learned their employees were considering unionizing, they followed a familiar playbook: do everything possible to fight and frustrate the unionization effort. Leaders often take a union drive personally, and see unions as a threat, failing to see the legitimacy of workers’ demands. But right now, with a tight labor market and rising worker organizing, companies should reconsider this approach, and opt for ones that lead to better outcomes for both workers and employers. An ugly anti-union effort can hurt morale, reputation, and increase turnover. Conversely, companies that take steps like voluntary recognition, partnering to create the best conditions for a fair campaign, and respecting workers’ decision can preserve a positive relationship with their employees.
Much of corporate America has failed to connect the dots on two of the biggest economic stories of the last year: a tight labor market and rising worker organizing. After more than 40 years of declining union membership, low unemployment has given workers more power, and there has been a tremendous upswing in the number of workers asking to hold union elections. Together, these trends signal a sea change in the relationship workers have with their employers. Companies that ignore these trends are missing an opportunity to chart a new, more sustainable and equitable version of capitalism. And if they don’t reverse course, their myopic view of union organizing will have significant ramifications not only for the future of our economy, but also our democracy.
Let’s look at each of these trends and then examine the picture that they paint together.
First, we have the surprising persistence of a tight labor market. We ended the year with an unemployment rate below 4%. Workers — including low-wage workers — have more opportunity than they’ve had in decades to quit and find better jobs, wages, and working conditions if they are unhappy. Throughout the so-called “great resignation,” many workers did just that.
Second, we’ve seen a remarkable surge in union activity. Workers at companies once considered “unorganizable” — such as Starbucks, Amazon, REI, Apple, and Trader Joe’s — launched successful campaigns. We saw railway workers willing to shut down the rail system in support of their demands for paid sick days, before Congress and the President stepped in to stop them. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) received a higher number of petitions to run union elections in the past year than any time in recent memory.
Many companies understandably see these events as a threat — the advent of a constant hostile presence in their workplace. But the view from this defensive crouch misses an important perspective. Specifically, it misapprehends why workers would bother to organize a union or threaten to strike for better wages and working conditions when they could just quit and go somewhere else. Namely, that many workers are trying to communicate to their employers that they want to improve their workplaces — not abandon them.
U.S. labor law makes union organizing a grueling endeavor. Workers who choose this path can be subjected to a vicious anti-union campaign from their employer. In recent high-profile campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks, the companies forced employees to listen to harangues against the union and instructed supervisors to pressure workers to vote against it. In addition, workers had to see dozens of their coworkers fired and harassed out of their jobs — Starbucks even closed stores with strong union activity. Striking comes with huge risks and too few protections. Under the National Labor Relations Act and the Railway Labor Act, employers can permanently replace any worker who goes out on strike — effectively allowing employers to fire them for exercising their right to take collective action.
Workers who take on this task are trying to make their companies better for all workers. Collective bargaining is the principal mechanism by which workers can have a say in how a company is managed. And workers often know as well or better than their managers about what it would take to make a company more efficient and more fair. By fighting for a union, they are fighting for their company.
Consider the hundreds of letters sent by Starbucks baristas to their managers requesting recognition for their union. In them, baristas express concern not only for themselves but also for their customers’ experience. Similarly, the Alphabet Workers Union (which represents Google employees) includes in its mission statement the goal to help Google live up to its unofficial motto, “don’t be evil.” Employers at companies with organizing campaigns or strikes have a better chance of building a place where workers want to stay — if they would only listen to what their workers are trying to tell them.
Most don’t, and instead turn to scorched-earth campaigns against organizing workers. Companies like Amazon and Starbucks epitomize this zero-sum approach — any victory for the union is a defeat for the company. Both companies have committed or been accused by the NLRB’s General Counsel of scores of violations of labor law, including intimidating and firing workers who support the union and refusing to bargain with the union after it won the right to represent workers. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has described the union as “some outside force,” accused it of wanting to “disrupt” the company’s business and labeled the campaign an “assault.” Similarly, Andrew Jassy, the Amazon CEO, has deemed the union to be an impediment to the company’s success. These anti-union campaigns have cost the companies millions of dollars — money that could have been used to improve the lives of their employees.
But companies don’t need to go to war against their employees. There are other approaches that can lead to better outcomes for both workers and employers.
Working with Your Workers
If running a unionbusting campaign is the old playbook, what does the alternative look like? The choice is not between a declaration of war and a welcome party. Companies have a range of options once they reject a zero-sum approach to their workers’ organizing campaign.
As a long-time believer in the value of collective bargaining, I advocate that companies proactively communicate to organizing workers that they will voluntarily recognize a union if the union can demonstrate that a majority of the workers want union representation. In technical terms, “voluntary recognition” means that the company commits to waiving its right under the NLRA to demand that a union win an NLRB-conducted election before the company accepts the will of the workers for union representation. Workers’ support for union representation usually takes the form of petitions or cards signed by workers and presented to management by the union.
Even employers who choose not to voluntarily recognize a union have options in how they express their position on the question of unionization — the choices aren’t binary. Instead of telling workers that management perceives support for the union as a betrayal of the company or a misguided decision, companies can simply stay silent by telling workers that it is their decision and that the company will not interfere. Employers also can communicate that while they don’t think that a union is necessary, they will respect workers’ right to make the choice of representation and won’t resort to litigation or other delay tactics.
Once employers choose a stance with regard to the start of a union organizing campaign, they have to decide how to behave during the campaign. This can range from silence to active partnership in creating the best conditions for a fair campaign.
Silence would look like instructing supervisors to keep their opinions to themselves, respecting workers’ right to talk about the union among themselves outside of work, and declining to hire consultants or law firms to conduct a counter campaign.
Partnership would look like negotiating an agreement with the union to allow the union to have some access to employees while at work, possibly during times when they aren’t on the clock or on the “shop floor.” Employers also can provide the union contact information for employees and assure workers that they can use work email or work-provided phones to discuss the union campaign outside of working hours without employer surveillance. These kinds of access agreements communicate to workers that the employer trusts that they can assess information and make a good decision — they do not have to be understood as conveying support for the union.
No matter which route they choose, employers can take measures to ensure that their relationship with their employees does not go off the rails during the union campaign. For instance, they can negotiate an agreement with the union that they will both refrain from disparaging the other during the campaign. It can be helpful for the union and employer to even negotiate specific responses they will give to workers if asked how they feel about each other. Another helpful tactic for preventing unintended consequences from getting out of control is for the employer and union to negotiate a process for de-escalating misunderstandings or the response to rogue actors on either side. This type of de-escalation process can be as simple as committing to bringing any perceived problems to each other’s attention before characterizing the problem in communications with the workers. Employers and unions also can designate a neutral third party to quickly resolve any disputes over campaign conduct that arise.
Finally, employers — even those that don’t waive their right to insist upon an NLRB-conducted election — have an opportunity to communicate respect for their workers’ choice after an election. Many employers decide to drag out the fight as long as possible. They use time-consuming litigation before the NLRB and in the federal courts to delay the inevitable obligation to recognize the union once majority support has been established, forcing the union to expend resources on litigation and work to keep up their support among the workers. Post-election, the employer can choose not to take advantage of these avenues and instead accept the outcome of the election without rancor. Even after a hard-fought campaign, the employer who forgoes litigation and promptly moves to the bargaining table is showing its workers that the company respects the workers’ choice and the negotiating process.
Unions Help Employers, Too
Employers who understand that union organizing campaigns represent a committed and invested workforce can reap significant benefits. First, they can increase employee retention (which both Starbucks and Amazon have problems with). Prolonged news reporting and social media coverage of employee picket lines and illegal discharges often hurts companies’ image with either their own workers or prospective ones. But research shows that unionization reduces turnover.
The benefit for companies’ relationship with its employees can extend beyond those workers in the union. The results from Starbucks’ most recent survey of morale among its office — not barista — staff demonstrates this dynamic. As Starbucks took a harder and harder line with its unionizing workers, their office employees gave the company historically low marks for ethical behavior and living up to its mission and values. In contrast, Microsoft chose to adopt some of the strategies outlined above in response to a union organizing campaign among Blizzard Activision employees who were being absorbed into Microsoft. In explaining his decision to take a more collaborative approach, Microsoft’s vice chair and president Brad Smith described it in terms of sending a message to all Microsoft employees about his commitment to listening and working well with them.
Second, if the organizing campaign results in union representation, the employer is starting its new relationship in a context that will make it more likely the relationship will be a productive one. The outcome of collective bargaining reflects both power and trust at the table. In this tight labor market, workers come to the table with more power than they have had in the past. With an atmosphere of trust at the table, however, employers and unions can skip the step in bargaining when each side tries to get the upper hand and move more quickly to jointly solving problems.
Maybe most importantly, a more collaborative approach to the relationship between companies and unions has the potential to create a form of capitalism that is more equitable and sustainable. For decades, we have experienced what happens when the labor movement is in decline. We have historic levels of income inequality driven by a race to the bottom in wages. We have a political system that is skewed toward the interests of the wealthiest individuals and corporations. And we have a democracy on shaky ground. While employers are not solely responsible for the weakened state of the labor movement, the increasing propensity for employers to wage ferocious and often illegal anti-union campaigns is a significant part of the problem. It stands to reason, therefore, that a movement among employers to listen their workers’ demands to be treated with more respect could be part of the solution. That would benefit all of us.