Employers across the United States and in every industry should be alert to conversations among their employees about union representation, collective bargaining agreements, demands for higher wages, or improvements in working conditions. The national bureau of labor statistics notes that the number of union workers in the US has been steadily declining since the 1950s, with only around 6% of the labor market counted as union workers or union organizers. However, many prominent companies, including Starbucks, Amazon, and Apple, have all recently had employees filing paperwork and holding meetings to discuss unionization. Even if their employees aren’t currently discussing collective action, it’s critical to be aware that workers are covered and protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). When it comes to employers and unions, it’s vital not to discriminate, retaliate against, or infringe upon employee rights to unionize. This article covers crucial considerations for employers and unions.
What Organizations Must Know About Employee Rights
Employers must be mindful of the National Labor Relations Act. Under this labor law, employees are given the right to:
- Form, or attempt to form, a union among other employees
- Join a union, whether the employer recognizes it or not
- Assist a union in organizing their coworkers
- Engage in protected concerted activities, which are activities that seek to modify wages or working conditions
- Refuse to participate in union activities (note that some states permit unions and employers to create agreements with a lawful union-security clause, which requires employees to join the union)
Organizations must prioritize supporting these rights. They must also be careful to avoid any actions that could appear to discriminate against employees who seek to form or join a union. (In many states, employers must also avoid discriminating against employees who choose not to join a union.)
Employers and Unions: What Organizations Should Do
It’s a best practice to build NLRA-friendly elements into the onboarding process, manager training, and the employee handbook. Employers should:
- Ensure all language in employee handbooks and other policies are compliant with the National Labor Relations Act. Consider working with an HR expert (like those at MP) or an employment lawyer to review employee handbooks for any language that could be construed as violating employee rights. Reviewers should focus on these policies:
- Standards of Conduct
- Email and Electronic Communications
- Organizations in industries that are especially prone to organization attempts may consider developing an employee policy regarding NLRA rights.
- Work with an HR expert (like those at MP) to stay updated on decisions and rule changes from the NLRB. These could require you to alter your policies.
- Train managers on how they can respond to any union organizations or activities. When it comes to employers and unions, managers are often the source of labor law violations. Solid training is essential and will significantly reduce legal risk and exposure. Employers may want to deliver training yearly to refresh managers and ensure compliance.
In addition to these best practices for employers and unions (or lack thereof), organizations should also take a few actions to ensure employees are happier, and thus less likely to unionize. These steps include:
- Training and developing strong leadership. Competent managers who develop strong relationships with their teams are crucial to high employee engagement. When employees leave a workplace for a new job, research has shown it’s frequently because they don’t like their manager.
- Implement a clear, simple process to allow employees to report threatening or coercive behaviors, workplace safety concerns, and potential wage and hour violations. Ensure this process is safe and never exposes employees to retaliation or negative consequences.
- Take action on employee feedback when possible. When staff members offer concerns or ideas for better company culture, compensation package, etc., they should feel heard. It’s vital to make sure employees feel as though they’re valued.
- Share with employees that the company prioritizes an excellent work environment. Include this message in onboarding, but also on a somewhat regular basis. Most importantly, follow through on this messaging.
- Designate one employee (or team) to answer any employee questions regarding benefits, PTO, etc. Ensure employees receive clear, comprehensive, and pleasant answers promptly.
- Educate employees on their benefits package on a year-round basis. Don’t just discuss them when the employee onboards or during open enrollment. Share updates with employees to help them use their benefits package to the fullest throughout the year.
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