The social uprising in Egypt over the past 20 days should serve as a stark reminder to all employers what can happen if your employees feel they are not being treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. And, like the Egyptian government, repeated failure to hear and address employee concerns may well result in YOUR overthrow and the installation of a labor union to represent your employees.

So, why do employees turn to unions for representation? According to attorney Stephen M. Bernstein the most common reasons employees turn to unions include:

  • Failure to solve employee problems
  • Poor communications (up and down)
  • Inattention to safety concerns
  • Perceptions of unfair treatment
  • Broken promises
  • Lack of courtesy, respect and recognition
  • Feelings of job insecurity
  • Not keeping pay & benefits competitive

In addition, rapid workplace changes without employee input, manpower shortages resulting in increased workload/work pace, unreasonable overtime or scheduling issues, and loss of job security can also increase the likelihood that your employees may turn to outside help for representation.

Although wages and benefits are what you hear on the 6 o’clock news, it’s not normally dissatisfaction with wages that drive union campaigns. As a matter of fact, unions usually prevail when the issue is safety (69%) or problem solving (68%). In only 32% of the campaigns do unions win on wages & benefits.

So, what should you do to maintain your union-free status? Consistently practice positive employee relations. Develop a workplace culture that emphasizes open, honest communication, provides mechanisms to resolve problems, develop and implement policies and guidelines that make sense and then apply them consistently. Notice I didn’t say treat ALL employees the same. Consistently administering your policies and guidelines means treating similarly situated employees similarly – not treating everyone exactly the same. Remember, you can treat everyone the same and still be unfair.

You may be asking yourself,” how do I know if my employees are dissatisfied and contemplating joining a union? “According to Bernstein, common signs include:

  • Employees seem unusually busy or agitated
  • Work groups stop talking or disperse when supervisor approaches
  • Employees request information about policies & benefits
  • Employees’ behavior, attitudes, attendance or work habits change
  • A new “informal leader” emerges
  • Employees make attempts to defy or irritate supervisor
  • Strangers appear outside the premises
  • Literature, buttons, shirts, cards appear
  • Employees begin using union language – “grievance, unfair labor practices, etc.)
  • Increased turnover among high performers
  • Employees avoiding eye contact
  • Employees questioning managerial authority
  • New employee alliances forming
  • Change in nature/frequency of employee complaints
  • Increase in argumentative questions at meetings
  • Increase in unauthorized “group” complaints
  • Employees seem increasingly divided
  • Poor performers begin to show improvement

If you see any of these signs what should you do about it? Well, you need to:

  • Know what is protected, concerted activity
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Train your leaders to recognize and report all signs of union activity, no matter how seemingly trivial they may appear
  • Train your team on what they can and cannot say and do during a union campaign
  • Consistently enforce your policies and procedures
  • Develop and maintain a workplace culture that is prohibitive to union organizing
  • Get HELP!

The good news is – union membership is down AGAIN! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only 11.9% of employees are currently members of a labor union, down from 12.3% in 2010. And in the private sector only 6.9% of employees belong to a union, down from 7.3% last year. But don’t be fooled into complacency by these numbers. Organized labor spent over $400 million dollars during the 2008 elections and they expect to be repaid with laws, appointments to the NLRB and NLRB rulings that make it easier for them to organize.