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When Workers Want to Unionize — Tips to Better Labor Relations

“When Workers Want to Unionize — Tips to Better Labor Relations”

Concerned about your workers unionizing? Opening lines of communication and addressing employee concerns can defuse tensions and improve labor relations. This Quick-Read describes how to deal with unionization efforts among your employees.


Traditionally, managers have distrusted unions and fought unionization, fearing that collective bargaining and contracts would make their organizations less flexible and less efficient as well as increase the cost of labor.

That negative view of unions isn’t always justified. Unions, in fact, can bring value to a company. "Research says that union-management relations tend to be very productive and not what people make them out to be," says Rick Maurer, principal of Maurer & Associates in Virginia and an expert in conflict resolution.

At 13.5% of the total U.S. workforce, unionized workers today are far less a factor in relations with management than they were through much of the 20th century ["Union Members Summary," U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (January 2001)].

Still, some workers feel the need to unionize.

"It’s not so much that the threat is bigger; it’s substantially less," says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "The issue is more that the consequences for certain employees are much greater."

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • How to create a corporate culture in which employees feel no need for the help of a union.
  • How to respond positively to a unionization effort.

The following related Quick-Reads might also prove useful: "Using Alternative Dispute Resolution," "Don’t Litigate: Mediate!" and "How to Improve Your Approach to Collective Bargaining."


Who wants unions?

As jobless rates have dropped, workers have paradoxically shown increasing interest in unions. Why? "With the economy booming, people feel stronger in their positions," says Jeff Guiler, a professor of management at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh. If they dislike their treatment, workers feel confident they can find another job. At the same time, they feel less risk in approaching a union.

Among highly skilled workers, unions offer little value and hold little appeal. Managers tend to treat these employees well, and employees know the value of their skills to the marketplace. The segment of the workforce most likely to embrace a union these days includes lower-skilled workers making less pay. Guiler’s examples of employees susceptible to unionization include maintenance, clerical and call-center workers.

Creating a corporate culture in which employees feel no need for a union

Workers know that union membership costs time and money. They are unlikely to unionize unless they are very dissatisfied. Do you provide substandard pay? Job security? Working conditions?

If you can not afford to provide adequate pay and benefits to keep workers contented, consider increasing workers’ job satisfaction by giving them more control over their job procedures and work schedules.

Some managers prefer the traditional get-tough approach to workers and the unions to which they might turn. With the array of options available to most workers today, however, the more practical approach is to avoid the whole issue by emphasizing communication, involvement, respect and reward.

"Take care in hiring a people-oriented management team, then take care to hire the type of worker you want," says Jerry Oliver, a labor attorney with Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore, L.L.P., in Raleigh, N.C. "If you do that, you can screen out a lot of problems before they enter the workforce."

Unionization efforts, in his experience, arise when management shows that it doesn’t care about employees. Managers need to regularly engage employees and hear their concerns. "You don’t have to agree," Guiler says. "Nine times out of 10, defusing a situation is just listening to it."

Responding to a unionization effort

If a unionization effort surfaces, consider it a symptom. Before a certification vote, management has time to learn why employees want union help. Once management understands the issues, it can look for ways to address concerns.

Be sure to get legal counsel before reacting to an effort to unionize, and again before taking any action. It’s all too easy to violate labor regulations in the heat of the moment, for example, by threatening to shut down operations or asking individuals whether they are pro- or anti-union.

Managers often bring in consultants to help them respond to the unionization effort. Some consultants try to frighten managers away from contact with employees during the organizing effort, citing potential violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

"But avoiding contact can be deadly," says Oliver. "Management needs to know that it has a right to communicate with employees." Active listening and positive response before a union vote may lead to rejection of the union and lay the groundwork for a better long-term relationship between management and workers.


Several years of strong working relationships between management and labor at the drinking fountain plant of Elkay Manufacturing Co. in Savanna, Ill., actually led union members to vote the union out. Walter Reilly, vice president of human resources for Elkay, based just outside Chicago, says the 250 members of the Metal Processors Union dropped the union in 1996 for a couple of reasons. First, the company had worked to promote employee involvement in business operations through a variety of work and cross-functional process improvement teams. "It was no longer a ‘we-they’ environment," Reilly says. "They saw management as critical to their success, and demanded good management. They saw management as educators and facilitators."

Second, Reilly says the union didn’t seize the chance to become an active participant in business operations. Instead, it took a low-key role, waiting for an adversarial opportunity. "They didn’t see that their job could change to be part of sharing the experience with the employees," Reilly says. Some costs — pension, health care — actually went up after de-certification. Productivity held steady. But Reilly says losing the union made things easier for everyone. Elkay’s corporate values support education, information sharing, employee involvement, personal and career growth. After the vote to quit the union, a group of employees met with managers and thanked them for providing job skill training that the employees said they also found useful in organizing the de-certification vote.

DO IT [top]

  1. To give workers a voice and tap the collective brainpower of every employee, pursue team-based work.

  2. Foster two-way communication between managers and employees. Expect managers to meet regularly one-on-one or with
    small groups of employees to hear concerns. Then in short order, managers should communicate responses and reasons for them. Most people will accept any response, as long as they have been heard before the final decision.

  3. If workers file a petition for a union vote, managers should expect that they will be contacted by several labor relations consultants. To find a good one, go to your network. Ask consultants for references, and talk with management at those companies about how the consultant’s counsel affected the tone and outcome of labor-management relations up to and after the union vote.
  4. Even before a union vote, find out what issues you and the union care about and try to address them. It could affect the outcome of a certification vote.
  5. If employees affiliate with a union, they are still employees. To work effectively with them and the union, anticipate their needs and solve them before they become union grievances.



Collective Bargaining and Labor Relations, 2nd edition, by Terry L. Leap (Prentice Hall, 1995). Chapter 5: "Union Organization Campaigns and Certification Elections."

Internet Sites

National Labor Relations Board

"Employee-Management Relations: The Managerial Decision Process," Chapter 20 of Personnel Management: Managing Human Resources by Paul S. Greenlaw and John P. Kohl (Harper and Row, 1986).

Article Contributors

Writers: Stu Watson and Richard Blue