Preventing unionization

Newspaper offers 'survival guide'

As unions ramp up local activities in a bid for growth, more local businesses will find themselves working with organized labor. Here's a primer on how to get along before, during and after contract talks:

Know your corporate practices. We're not talking about what your employee handbook says. We're talking about the stuff your company actually does. Unions that research companies they're negotiating with often find disconnects between written policies and actual procedures, said Edwin Keller, a partner in the Las Vegas labor law firm of Kamer Zucker Abbott. Typically, the status quo that existed when the union entered is what you must maintain in your labor agreement. Try to impose a handbook rule that doesn't exist in practice, and the union could accuse you of making unilateral changes in employment agreements. That could violate federal labor laws. You could end up in front of the National Labor Relations Board defending your company against unfair labor practices, rather than spending your time negotiating a mutually-beneficial contract, Keller said.

Pinpoint your priorities before you bargain. Ask yourself what corporate policies and practices you most want to preserve, and what policies need changing. Your general counsel might spend days arguing with the union over vacation protocol, only to report back to human resources and find department heads cared far more about sick leave.

Develop informal lines of communication. Bargaining meetings can include as many as 60 people advocating for the union or the company.

"Some sessions can turn into circuses," Keller said. "There can be a lot of posturing on one side or the other."

That's why it's essential for just one or two lead negotiators on each side to get together occasionally outside formal labor talks. Just grabbing a cup of coffee before a session can help each side understand where the other party is coming from.

"I can recall situations where the union representative would say, 'This is a real hot-button issue for some people who'll be there today, so let's both make sure we don't ratchet up the tension level by giving short shrift to it or making offhand comments that can be taken wrong,'" Keller said.

Educate your managers on the new contract. Contract-administration training helps your managers know basics ranging from vacation-time seniority to proper layoff procedures. If you botch a vacation request because you don't understand the new agreement's rules, you could have some minor aggravation on your hands. Or you could end up on the wrong side of a serious grievance procedure. Either way, some contract training can prevent big mix-ups.

Share information with the union. The union has a legal obligation to represent all its members equally. It can't always do so if an employer doesn't give details during a grievance process. If you're taking a union member through a disciplinary process, or if you're having trouble interpreting a contract, provide as much information as you can so the union can effectively cover its members.

Keep in touch. Regular post-contract discussions with union officials can head off smaller concerns before they become full-blown grievances, Keller said.


Perhaps the most effective way to avoid strife with organized labor is to prevent union entry into your business. Here are some tips that could help:

Make your pay and benefits competitive. Perform regular salary and benefit surveys to ensure the compensation you offer is up to snuff when compared with competitors in your market.

"If you think everything is fine even though you're paying $3 an hour less than the competition in wages and benefits, you're asking to be organized," Keller said.

Keep up management training. When the economy tanks and companies look to cut expenses, supervisor training often goes out the window. But good management skills are essential in department heads who have immediate contact with employees. The best technical skills don't mean much if a manager doesn't communicate well, or if he fails to understand why he shouldn't dress down poorly performing employees in front of their coworkers.

"There's an old adage out there that bad employees don't bring in unions -- bad supervisors do," Keller said.

At a minimum, find a two- or four-hour management class that will review labor laws and impart basic people skills. Labor law firms, including Kamer Zucker Abbott, often offer such courses.

Be consistent. Implementing policies and procedures fairly and evenly can head off discontent among employees. Applying rules differently could send disgruntled workers into the arms of the nearest labor union.

Boost communication in uncertain times. Keller said he frequently sees unions enter the picture when corporations experience big changes. The departure of a key executive or the sudden attrition of departmental managers can make workers nervous. Be up front with your work force about what's going on.

"If the employer is not communicating with employees and assuring them that things are OK during a transition, they will look for that support and input from a third party," Keller said.


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