The Effects of Unionization on the Workplace

by Ruth Mayhew
The process of unionization can have palpable effects on the work environment.

The process of unionization can have palpable effects on the work environment.

Some effects of unionization are high wages, good benefits and healthy pension contributions. However, unions may exacerbate polarization between management and front-line workers and can create an adversarial relationship between organized labor and management. How can you anticipate the effects of unionization in your workplace? The effects of unionization begin to happen long before the workplace is actually unionized.

Water Cooler Meetings

Long before a union-organizing campaign gets underway, you might notice signs of "pre-unionization," or unusual groupings of employees, sometimes as few as two or three workers. Although it's not uncommon to see employees conversing with one another, during pre-unionization, employees who weren't friendly with each other in the past may suddenly appear to be pals. If you have your finger on the pulse of workplace activity, you may notice subtle changes in employee behavior, especially as workers distance themselves from their supervisors.

Card Signing

Union organizers might initiate conversations with employees about joining a union. An organizer might solicit feedback from workers about wages, benefits and working conditions. Union reps might meet employees in the parking lot after a shift end or during breaks. As a result of these meetings, employees may begin to seriously consider turning to a third party for solutions to workplace issues. As the union organizer provides employees with more information about the benefits of union representation, the organizer will ask them to sign authorization cards that verify their interest. "Card signing" doesn't obligate workers to join a union; it means workers want to explore union representation.

Union Campaign

Once the union has signed authorization cards from 30 percent of a company's employees, it can file a representation petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB is an independent federal agency that enforces laws such as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. When the NLRB determines that a "community of interest" exists, it schedules a union election approximately six weeks from the date the petition was filed. During a union campaign, labor and management each provide information to persuade workers to support the union or the company, respectively.

Prohibited Actions

Employers cannot threaten, interrogate, make promises to or spy on their employees in an attempt to learn where they stand on union support. The National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from interfering with the rights of employees to engage in concerted activity. The Labor-Management Relations Act specifically prohibits labor unions from preventing employees from exercising their rights to not support organized labor. These are particular concerns during a union campaign.

Collective Bargaining

Collective bargaining is the process used to negotiate a labor union contract. Once the NLRB certifies that a labor union has won a simple majority of votes in an election, the union and the employer are required to bargain in "good faith," which means neither party will create unreasonable or artificial barriers to avoid collective bargaining. The NLRB doesn't demand that the parties reach a contract. If the parties reach an impasse, the NLRB will intercede, with the help of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, to get negotiations back on track. To deal with collective bargaining, the employer may need to hire staff or legal counsel to represent the employer in negotiation sessions or enlist the aid of HR staff to produce labor cost and benefit scenarios and anticipate the potential fallout if the parties cannot agree on proposals and concessions. The employer may experience backlash from employees, the labor union or even the general public who sympathize with organized labor.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew began writing in 1985. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry" and "Human Resources Managers Appraisal Schemes." Mayhew earned senior professional human resources certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute and holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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