Legal Notice

Why employees organize—and what to look for


Although much ink has been spilled over why employees unionize, experience suggests certain common causes:

A lack of effective/accurate communications, which leaves employees not feeling in on things and as having no voice in the workplace

Concerns about job security

A lack of appreciation or respect, either as individuals or as a group

And favoritism—real or perceived.

Although money (wages and benefits) is invariably an issue in organizing campaigns, it is usually not the prime motivator except in cases of perceived inequities/disparity and situations involving extended wage freezes or pay cuts.

At every newspaper we have surveyed for union vulnerability or represented in conjunction with an organizing campaign, change and the pace of change has made employees anxious to varying degrees. In particular, the fundamental changes in how content is created, monetized, and delivered gives rise to real concerns about job security.

Given the conditions facing the industry, it is impossible to avoid these issues and problems, but employers should be sensitive to employee concerns. The cornerstone to any effective union avoidance program is to be open and truthful to employees, to communicate as often as is appropriate, and to encourage and be responsive to employee feedback. Employee perceptions of fairness are particularly important.

As noted, one of the major and intended effects of the new rules is to reduce the period of time an employer has to counter arguments favoring unionization. Unsurprisingly, unions increasingly engage in “stealth campaigns”—campaigns conducted in a manner designed to minimize the chances that an employer will detect organizing activity before the union is ready to disclose it—to reduce the time employers have to respond.

This is an increasingly common and effective tactic. An informal survey of management attorneys and labor consultants suggest that in fully 50% of all organizing drives, the first time management was aware of organizing activity was when an election petition was filed or a demand for recognition made.

So, what practical and legal steps can an employer take to insure it won’t be caught flatfooted?

While it is unlawful for employers to interrogate employees about or spy on organizing activity, here are some common early warning signs of union activity: small gatherings of employees, particularly in unusual places; employees appearing unusually busy during non-working time; new employee groups forming and/or new informal leaders emerging; a previously popular employee suddenly becoming ostracized; a sudden increase in questions about company policy and benefits for no apparent reason; employee questioning/interactions with supervisors/managers becoming more belligerent; anti-company graffiti appearing; and strangers or former employees beginning to hang around the facility. One additional, and usually telling, sign of organizing activity is if the grapevine goes dead.

Supervisors and managers should be made aware of these early warning signs, cautioned not to try to handle thing on their own or “keep things quiet,” and understand they are to immediately report signs of possible union activity up the chain of command. This will allow senior management more time to assess the risks and design an effective action plan to either head off or win any election.

--Michael Rybecki