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Right-To-Work: Work It! Part II

Disclosure: I do not have firsthand experience working in a union environment. Because of that, I will focus on general employee rights under the NLRA and TIPS for employers. I will also share a couple of PRO tips from folks who actually deal with unions.


In many ways, much progress has been made in labor relations since what many consider the first national labor strike in the United States: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. At the time, railroad workers were protesting what they considered were unfair practices including the cut in wages over and over again by the railroad. In the course of two days, much damage and violence occurred including deaths and the destruction of the depot.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935 “to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.”

The NLRA applies to most workers; not just those who belong to a union. In my opinion, the why behind the existence of the NLRA is relevant, even in a non-union environment. Management practices that support a workplace environment free of harm or intimidation is good for employees, businesses, and society in general.

Right-To-Work is about workers not having to become union members as a requirement of their job. A personal favorite definition comes from the National Conference of State Legislatures which states “Under right-to-work laws, states have the authority to determine whether workers can be required to join a labor union to get or keep a job. Currently, 27 states and Guam have given workers a choice when it comes to union membership. Labor unions still operate in those states, but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job.”

In a Right to Work state, I cannot be forced to join a union in order to work in an organization. I can choose to join or not join in those states and still be able to work at an organization that has a union.

Even if an employee doesn’t choose to join a union, and even an organization does not have a union in place, employees have certain rights under the NLRA. As business leaders, we must be vigilant not to violate these rights. These employee rights include but are not limited to: (from Employee Rights Poster)

  • Discuss the terms and conditions of employment with coworkers

  • Take action with one or more co-workers to improve working conditions by raising work-related complaints directly with the employer or government agency

Running Interference

An easy way for a business leader to violate an employee’s NLRA rights is to forbid an employee from sharing their pay with coworkers:

A non-union trucking company had a confidentiality policy that was interpreted as prohibiting employees from sharing their pay. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that “the confidentiality policy was facially unlawful because employees would reasonably interpret the ban on disclosing “personnel information and documents” to prohibit discussing their salaries and wages with coworkers or non-employees.”

Another way an organization can violate the NLRA is by firing a group of employees who complain, even on social media, about fellow coworkers (work related work conditions):

A non-profit organization fired five employees who posted and/or responded on social media about their coworker.

In past lives, it was common for business leaders to participate in “union avoidance training”. Common content was the acronym TIPS which are things you should not do regarding employees and union activity:

T Threaten

I Interrogate

P Punish

S Surveillance

It never sat well with me that these tips were given in the context of union activity only. In thinking about effective employee relations, not doing the above is good practice regardless!

I can’t think of any business situation where threatening an employee promotes good outcomes. Even when we have a performance discussion with an employee, the goal is to coach for improvement, not to instill fear through threats. A disciplinary action should not be used as “punishment” but rather as information for the employee to use for reflection and improvement. Depending on the circumstances, “punish” may equal illegal retaliation.

During internal investigations, it’s common to use business interrogation skills to get to the bottom of an event. In that context, that makes sense. However, demanding employees share every detail of specific encounters they have with others, is likely unnecessary. As a business leader, there are better ways than yelling, speaking in an intimidating fashion when asking questions, spying or manipulation to get the business information one needs.

Supervising is not the same as surveilling. Overseeing someone’s work, even to the point of micromanaging is not the same as surveillance. I recently spoke with a peer who shared that a supervisor’s spouse was driving by an employee’s home on a regular basis. This employee has been working from home due to COVID and their organization’s requirements. The spouse would then report back on whether or not the employee was actually working! This type of surveillance is quite an overreach! If the trust between a business leader and their report has eroded to this point, there are likely bigger concerns that should be addressed more appropriately.

Psychological safety is a key component of a healthy work environment. Threatening, interrogating, punishing, and surveilling is not in line with that.

PRO Tips – Get There with You style when working with a Union

Moira shared –“What worked best for me was to kill them with kindness. Promptly respond to every issue and loop them in on stuff they should know. I would invite them to any discipline meeting that was likely to get grieved. It was easier than playing the game of letting the employee demand representation and then having to reschedule. And, like everything else, document, document, document.”

Susan shared - “Having five in-house employee associations essentially means five collective bargaining agreements. Because they are in-house unions, we negotiate with our own employees rather than national union negotiators. You're sitting across the table from someone you see every day! I believe in interest-based bargaining - essential the win-win negotiation. We spend a lot of time discussing situations and why the association is asking for each concession. Many times it's because of something managers are doing. Sometimes we'll agree to a concession (schedule change premium of 2x hourly rate for changing schedule less than a week in advance) but we can avoid paying it because managers ensure they are making changes timely and before the premium (penalty) kicks in. Working together and explaining the "whys" and "hows" makes negotiating much easier and less contentious. Knowing you'll see the person across the table from you every day makes one realize the importance of civility.”

What tips do you have for exceptional employee relations?

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