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Why are Gen-Y and Gen-Z So Worked Up About Labor Unions?

Attorney Beverley Adams at Fredrikson & Byron represents employers and executives in the full range of employment-related matters, providing guidance on such issues as employment investigations, disciplinary matters, employment contracts and union labor negotiations. She litigates in federal and state trial courts in North Dakota and Minnesota. You can reach her at [email protected]

Many of us believe that labor unions are relics of the 1930s, representing employees forced to work long hours, doing hard labor and in dangerous uncleanly conditions. Some believe employees today don’t need unions, since market factors and employment regulations naturally provide an environment where employees can do just fine by advocating for themselves without an “outside third party,” such as a union, representing them.

As we have seen over the last year, particularly with younger workers, many people disagree with these premises. Young workers are more enthusiastic about unions now than they have been for decades. In the past year alone, employees at some of the nation’s best-known companies—including Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI and Chipotle—have organized unions for the first time.

The surge in unionization covers multiple types of industries, including museum workers, digital journalists, graduate students, nurses, adjunct professors, cannabis workers and those committed to political campaigns and non-profit organizations. Student workers are also part of the latest wave of unionization, flocking to labor’s banner to improve pay and the working conditions that come with it.

The striking disconnect here is corporate leadership has the perception that employees do not want unions, and they correctly point out that only 10.3 percent of America’s workers (33.9 percent public employees and 6.1 percent in the private sector) are in unions, which is down from 35 percent at the labor unions’ peak in the 1950s and 20 percent in the 1980s. However, the surge of unionization efforts by young workers tells a much different story. If unions are relics, younger employees did not get the memo.

The general public’s perception of unions has also warmed up. On Aug. 30, a Gallup poll showed 71 percent of Americans approve of unions, which is the highest level since 1965 and a sharp increase from 48 percent in 2009. There has also been an increase in non-union workers who said they would vote to join a union.

What is Driving Union Support?

What is powering this surge in union support, and is it enough to counter the decades-long downward trend? The recent popularity of unions may be tied to three relevant factors.

1. The Covid-19 Pandemic

Most experts are saying the biggest factor was COVID. The pandemic created a catalyst that focused on two primary perspectives:

  1. How we work and live.
  2. The relationship between employers
    and workers.

The pandemic forced low-paid employees to the front lines of managing COVID protocols while putting them at great risk for COVID exposure. Retail workers had to enforce mask-wearing and check vaccination status, while manufacturing and delivery workers feared they did not have the right COVID protective gear. Nursing employees were regularly required to interact with COVIDpositive patients who were seriously ill or dying, and some were paid less than traveling nurses even though they worked side-by-side doing the same type of work.

All of this resulted in a tidal wave of activism during the first months of the pandemic. The distance and disparities between leadership and rank-and-file employees widened, as leaders were able to work in environments where they could safely distance from others, while the rank-and-file employees were required to work in environments with greater exposure to COVID. During that same time, many executive salaries increased while employees’ wages stayed the same.

2. Inflation, stagnant wages and difficult working conditions

Employees are now under more stress. High costs of fuel have resulted in every product subject to transport increasing in price, including food. Living expenses and healthcare costs continue to increase and working conditions can be grueling, especially in healthcare, factory and manufacturing jobs. Employees were required to work additional hours and were short-staffed when their co-workers got COVID or were forced to quarantine. Employees endured these additional pressures after years of past wage increases which did not keep up with increases in the general costs of living. Simply put, employees are living and working in environments that have much more pressure from every direction.

3. Social justice + worker justice fanned the flames

Social and mainstream media attention on organizing employees was powerful even if not ultimately successful. The empowerment of employees, intertwining social justice with worker justice, resonated with the younger and idealistic workforce.

The Gallup data from 2021 shows that young adults ages 18-34 approve of unions at a rate of 77 percent. The younger workforce sees each other’s victories as inspiration for their own. Also, media coverage of corporate leadership failures stirred a sleeping giant to revolt against the type of workplace culture that was not working for younger employees. Images from demonstrations showing employees shouting out about injustices or holding up banners in front of a facility had a very powerful effect on them.

Employees began to see unionization as a powerful tool to get a fair share of the economic pie.

How Can Companies Stop or Prevent Unions?

The answer may be legally complicated, while operationally it requires creating working environments where employees never feel they must resort to a third party to have good working conditions and to protect their rights. Organizations that value being union-free continually engage in deliberate efforts to ensure they are not susceptible to unionization.

Some tips for implementing practices that prevent a union from organizing include:

1. It is all about the relationships?

Be thoughtful and strategic about who you place in leadership roles at all levels in your organization. Often middle-level supervisors are the ones with more daily interaction than executive leadership and may hold power over your workforce. They may be loyal to the C-Suite but can create chaos among your workforce by exercising their power in a punitive or indifferent manner.

Employees also want clear direction. The goal is to create a friendly and positive work environment, along with a shared sense of purpose. This results in increased engagement, more positive morale and higher levels of productivity. Since your workforce understands how important they are to organizational goals, it is important for leadership to connect with employees on a deeper level.

2. Do not ambush employees with significant changes

Considerable advance notice and training should occur for staff on any new policies or procedures that are implemented, so they have time to understand and embrace them. Staff will feel ambushed if new policies or pay methodologies are applied without prior notice and even input. Employers should never implement significant changes to policies during union campaigns, as this could be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

3. Leadership must address concerns before they blew up

Disputes must be resolved early and in accordance with your company policies and protocols. Conflict resolution is a learned leadership skill, and it’s not always intuitive to everyone who is in a management role. It is important for companies to invest and train individuals in leadership roles so they know how to handle conflicts in a fair and timely manner. Follow-up also is very important to ensure adequate resolution.

4. The importance of an open-door policy

Maintaining an open-door policy can cut off animosity that may feed union organizations. In cases where direct supervisors are part of the concern or are unable to address a certain scenario, employers should have protocols to escalate issues to higher offices that are made known to employees. If employees have assurances that you will listen and provide feedback, they will have less desire to join a union.

Just one ignored employee can become a lightning rod for union activities within your organization. Open communication channels create stronger workplace connections, deepen trust and create a positive workplace culture. If employees cannot raise injustices internally, they will go externally. You want them to come to you first.

5. Engage staff in solving problems

Supportive channels for employee communication, like suggestion boxes, compliance hotline options and frequent team meetings, can be effective. It is important to seek employee feedback but even more important to review it and listen. Failure to consider employee feedback is a surefire way to encourage employees to seek out a union that they believe is more than willing to listen to their concerns.

6. Educate employees about the downsides to being associated with a union

Unfortunately, most employees are not self-informed about unions. Unions often make promises that they are unable to keep, or they may fail to educate employees on all the consequences of joining a union. It is important for a company to educate employees on the company’s professional position on unions. Many employees are unaware that they must pay union dues, and/ or do not always understand the union literature that is provided to them.

7. Reward your staff for teamwork and extra effort

Companies should celebrate hard work, company growth, accomplishments and teamwork. Each employee’s contribution to the bigger vision matters and should be celebrated. Rewards can include things like cash, extra time off, lunch, flexible working hours, promotions, educational opportunities or training. Always consider recognizing your employees for their contributions publicly in front of their co-workers or your community. You can even ask employees to share their favorite ways to be recognized. Personalizing recognition for certain employees can make a huge difference in how well they feel appreciated.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the federal law that governs the process for employees to unionize and controls what employers can do during an organizing campaign. There are very severe consequences for employers threatening, intimidating or making promises to or conducting surveillance of employees engaging in union activities.

Even if you are not currently unionized, there are also certain “concerted and protected activities” which non-union employees can engage in, which are protected under the NLRA. Therefore, it is very important to have a union legal advisor who understands state and federal regulations and can guide you through this process.

Written by Beverly Adams

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