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Unions Work Only If Management Doesn't

BY WILLIAM ADAMS

The employer that has an honest, well intentioned and decent attitude toward his employees has a foundation that will make union organizing of his business entity unlikely. If the employer successfully addresses issues that cause employees discomfort, unrest or alienation, the employer becomes a difficult target for union organizers. Preserving a union-free workplace is an honor in today's world of pressured loyalty and broken trust.

It is noble for a management team to maintain a direct relati onship with employees because whenever disputes occur in unionized shops, the ultimate victims are the employees -- the members of the union. They are the ones who put it all on the line during a labor dispute. They are the ones who forfeit pay and benefits during a strike. They are the ones who are subject to the divisiveness and sometimes terroristic behavior of their coworkers or outside union organizers who impede their ability to earn a livelihood. The employer who preserves a union-free status has protected his employees and their families.

HIGHER COSTS. The cost of running a unionized shop has been estimated to be 25 percent to 35 percent higher than a non-union operation. These costs do not reflect higher wages and fringe benefits that are paid to unionized employees.

Our firm held a national seminar with a major manufacturing company that runs 30 manufacturing plants -- half of which are union free, the other half unionized, at least in part. We found that the administrative budgets of the unionized plants were 30 percent more than in the non-unionized plants. In the unionized plants, the human resource staffs were larger because they needed people to handle grievances, job descriptions, rate negotiations, time and motion measurements, and compliance with government regulations. The union-free facilities were not as inclined to have "bird dogs" overseeing compliance with many of the workplace statutes.

One of the costs of dealing with the union relates to a higher frequency of involvement with outside regulatory agencies, especially those dealing with hours and wages, OSHA and the omnipresent EEOC.

Some of the indirect costs of dealing with unions relate to outside services. Most manufacturing operations today buy legal counsel on an as-needed basis. The need for a labor attorney or other professional to handle contract negotiations, administer the contract as it relates to grievances and arbitrations and to preview compliance with the collective bargaining agreement are expensive propositions. Virtually none of those costs exist in a union-free operation.

Unions will advertise that 97 percent of all labor agreements are settled without a strike. What they neglect to say is that roughly 50 percent of initial contract negotiations never end in an executed collective bargaining agreement. Moreover, more than 75 percent of negotiations related to a first contract are not concluded within one year of the election, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Certainly, the employees are frustrated during that period because when they reached out to the union they did so with the prospect that something would change -- that work and pay conditions would be better as a result of representation by the union. If their hopes are dashed or at least stalled for over a year, their frustration level is exceedingly high.

In such a situation, the direct costs to the business are lost productivity, higher employee turnover, absenteeism and perhaps even sabotage. The indirect costs often relate to the corporate campaign tactic that unions are so apt to employ: "Let's use the NLRB against the employer."

It is quite common when negotiations do not result in a quick contract that unions will file unfair labor practice charges, accusing the employer of bad faith bargaining or other unlawful practices, all of which come with the cost of a defense. How much do these tactics cost? The answer depends on the employer, the union, the issues and what flaming radical the employer is likely to have assigned to investigate his unfair labor practice from the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

LESS AGILE. Another hidden cost of dealing with a union is lost flexibility. Contracts do not improve the employer's ability to move fast, and in today's rapidly changing world he who hesitates loses. Work rules and other contract language that spell out rigid operating guidelines don't assist an employer in responding to the pace of change today. Nobody wants to have to decide whose turn it is to work overtime or to restrict the supervisor from helping out in a situation that could be resolved in seconds with a couple of additional helping hands. Employees don't like those situations either. Most employees want to do the right thing, and they know that anything impeding their employer's ability to be successful ultimately represent a job security threat to them. Often times you will hear employees say, "I wish we didn't have to deal with this union situation."

Employees want to participate in decisions. Employees are seeking a voice, dignity, respect, protection from a changing world and some assurance that further pay cuts and benefit changes will cease. While a union cannot guarantee any of those wishes, employees will often reach out to the union if they feel their situation is hopeless. "There is considerable evidence that employee-involvement programs inhibit union organizing, both by reducing union win rates in certification elections and by preventing unions from even mounting campaigns," according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, author of "Organizing to Win" (Cornell University Press, 1998).

In studying 200 union organizing campaigns beginning in 1994 and surveying many organizers, Bronfenbrenner found that unions won 48 percent of the time when there were no employee involvement programs and only 30 percent when there were such programs.

Employee involvement programs coupled with other power-sharing programs like alternative dispute resolution systems, give employees a sense that they control their destiny within the workplace. Those processes are not normally available in a unionized operation because the union wants to be the gatekeeper of that power. When employees become part of a union, they give up the right to control their own destiny.

Experience shows that when employees are advised that participation programs would be modified or eliminated if the union came in, employees who participate in these programs often become the staunchest anti-union spokesmen for the company.

--William Adams, Ph.D., is president and chief executive officer of Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan. Since 1973, he has compiled a personal win rate of 94% in representation elections and gained a reputation as one of the most effective union avoidance consultants in the United States. He can be reached at 800-237-3942 or http://www.anh.com