February 27, 2017

Union Organizing At Boeing, Yale University, and Elsewhere Show Need For Swift Response

By Steve Gutierrez

Union organizing campaigns have been in the news a great deal lately. Graduate students at Yale University voted this week in favor of unionizing. But Boeing workers at its South Carolina factory recently rejected representation by the International Association of Machinists, after a long and bitter organizing campaign. What makes the difference between a “yes” or “no” vote? The key lies in understanding current organizing tactics and preparing a timely, effective response.

Boeing Defeats Union Vote In South Carolina

According to news reports, 74 percent of over 2,800 workers at Boeing’s South Carolina factory voted against the union. The election was significant because it is believed that Boeing opened its Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina at least in part to escape the strong union that represents Boeing’s workforce in its home state of Washington. South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country and Boeing mounted a strong opposition to the union campaign there.

Boeing’s South Carolina production and maintenance workers sought more consistent work instructions, fairer evaluations, and higher wages and benefits, according to news reports. In opposition, Boeing is described as emphasizing that the union had earlier opposed expansion of the South Carolina factory and that the union would only come between workers and management.  Reports also describe a series of edgy opposition ads ran by a group closely tied to the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, to which Boeing belongs, including one that showed a machinist as a casino boss who pushed workers to gamble away their future. The strong opposition campaign appears to played a significant role in the rejection of the union in the recent vote.

Yale University Grad Assistants Favor Union 

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate student employees, such as teaching and research assistants, on private campuses are entitled to form a union and collectively bargain.  (See our post on that ruling here.) That ruling overturned long-standing Board precedent against treating graduate assistants as employees who are entitled to the rights and protections of the National Labor Relations Act. In the short time since last summer’s ruling, at least three campuses have seen graduate students form unions, with Yale University as the latest.

News reports cite numerous motivations behind the teaching assistant’s push for a union, including funding security, mental health care, affordable child care, and equitable pay. Yale, which had expressed its opposition to the 2016 NLRB ruling, warned graduate students that a union could alter their relationship with faculty members and limit their individual power as the union made decisions for everyone. The union’s margin of victory in this week’s election was reported to be slim.

Union organizers took a unique approach at Yale, seeking to have individual departments hold separate elections for their respective grad assistants. This tactic of using micro-units has proven successful in other organizing campaigns as the union need only convince a smaller number of employees in a particular department to vote “yes” rather than getting a majority of all employees holding the same position companywide to vote in favor of the union. In Yale’s case, the union Unite Here was successful in getting the graduate assistants in eight of nine departments to vote in favor of joining the union.

Understanding Union Organizing Tactics

The fast pace of union elections under the “quickie election” rules can significantly favor union organizers. As we’ve written in a prior post, the NLRB’s new election process, in effect since April 2015, accelerates the election process by shortening the time between a union’s filing of a representation petition and the holding of the vote. That time may be as short as two weeks, leaving management little time to ramp up an opposition campaign. Unions can seek to catch employers off guard or unprepared, using the quick election process to win elections without an organized response from management.

Micro-units like those used in the Yale University grad assistant campaign offer a method for unions to get their foot in the door at a particular company. Here is how micro-unit organizing works. Instead of organizing all the employees in a certain job category, such as all retail salespeople at a large box store, the union seeks to organize only one subgroup, such as the salespeople in the footwear department of the store. Rather than needing to convince a majority of all retail salespeople at the store to vote “yes,” the union may only need to get five or six “yes” votes in a department of nine or ten eligible voters. Then, once the union has organized one micro-unit at a particular company, it may move on to organize other departments or subgroups at the same company.

Use of social media can favor union organizing. Unions no longer need to mail out meeting notices and organizing information via snail mail or email. They can set up Facebook group pages or other social media boards to quickly and efficiently mobilize union supporters to attend rallies, hold card–signing meetings, or voice complaints about management. The word spreads fast and wide, making it imperative on employers to prepare its opposition campaign in advance.

Speaking of communication methods, employees may now use company email systems to engage in union organizing efforts on nonworking time. Thanks to the late 2014 NLRB overruling of its long-standing Register Guard precedent, employees who have been given access to a company’s email system for use in the course of their work have a right to use the email system to engage in Section 7 protected activities, including union organizing, during nonworking hours. Subject to a few limitations, this ruling opens the door for union supporters to write and send pro-union communications to fellow employees on your own company email system while they are on break or after hours. 

Preparation Is Key To Opposing Union Efforts

How can organizations oppose these union organizing tactics and convince their employees that a third-party representative is not needed? The key lies in proper preparation.

Because of the shortened election process, employers need to act quickly whenever rumblings about union organizing arise. Supervisors and managers need to be trained on what they can and cannot say during a campaign, and how they should treat union supporters on the job in order to avoid unfair labor practice charges. Care should be taken when gathering information about the hot button issues of employees and the union.

When it comes to launching a full campaign to oppose an election, employers should consider bringing in outside counsel at the earliest possible moment to avoid mistakes that could result in an election being overturned. Opposition strategies typically will include defining the bargaining unit, deciding on the company message, and determining how aggressive the opposition campaign needs to be. Then, specifics can be mapped out for taking proactive steps such as having employee meetings, communicating with employees via email and social media, and reaching out to pro-employer groups and associations that may be able to provide support. You’ll want someone well-versed in addressing the media to speak on the company’s behalf should news outlets report on the unionizing efforts. And companies need to consider contingency plans should any boycotts, picketing, work slow-downs, or violence break out.

Conclusion

Union organizing tactics continue to evolve so your response to an organizing campaign must evolve as well. Thinking through these important preparation steps before a union starts to get a foot hold at your business is essential if you want to remain union free.

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