Union Avoidance—Win the War!

By Doug Cartland

Unions are like sharks. They crave the sight of weakness, will circle and, when the time is ripe, pounce! And once a shark has its teeth in…

Back in the early nineteenth century there were no such things as corporations or big business in America. When the shoe cobbler ran his shoe cobbler shop his employee stood right next to him and his customer directly in front of him. When the business owner made decisions, he saw the effects and ramifications of those decisions played out before his own eyes.

With industrialism, though, came large employee numbers and sometimes multiple locations. Big business and corporations were born and the owners of businesses became further and further removed from the employee and the customer as layers and layers of management came between them.

You know what they say: "Out of sight, out of mind." The further removed owners became, the less they saw the effects of their decisions; the less they saw the effects of their decisions, the less concerned they were about those effects, and the more cavalier they became about the decisions they made.

The spreadsheet was directly in front of them—people weren't.

Indeed, as organizations and corporations grew, the more their morality dissolved too. Now if one made an immoral decision it was easier to hide and the burden easier to bear. The immorality rested on many shoulders—it was not "I" who did it, it was "we" who did it, and it was easier to justify.

So we had leaders who did not see, and often did not care to see, the ramifications of their decisions and we had justified immorality. This is a lethal combination.

Enter abuse.

Unions were a justifiable and necessary response to that abuse. Where there was not enough power in one voice to get the attention of management, there was power in numbers.

Here's a novel question, however: What if there had been no immoral business leaders? I know you say, "Doug, stop living in a dream world!" But indulge me for a moment and imagine:

What if each industry at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was run with a people-first mentality? What if the business leaders had dealt with employees fairly and empathetically—the railroads, the steel mills, the iron works?

What if there were clear lines of communication between management and employees? What if there were opportunities for employees to be genuinely heard? What if employees were reasonably secure in their jobs—and they knew if they did their jobs well and the company was prospering they would always have a job and be able to provide for their families?

What if the employees had never been pushed beyond human capacity? What if the leaders were more concerned for the employee's safety and well-being than stuffing their own pockets? What if employees always had an opportunity to receive a fair share of the profits? What if employees truly had the maximum benefits a business could offer?

The answer is as obvious as a sandwich sign in a picket line: If the advent of unions was a response to abuse…and there was no abuse…then there would have been no unions.

Most business leaders today view union avoidance or prevention as a legal and strategic matter. They research employee rights, management's legal responses and they ask for strategies about how to defeat union votes. In that, they might win that very expensive battle.

In actuality, and showing due deference to a need for legal understandings, union avoidance is a cultural matter. A people-first culture is the only union avoidance strategy that will win the war!

The unions can circle all they want (and they are circling), but they will be rejected by the employees because employees prefer to work in a fair, people-first, non-union environment rather than a forced fairness created by unions. I know—I've talked to them.

The reasons are simple. First, while unions give a greater collective voice and freedom to employees, they diminish the individual's voice and freedom.

Also unions, because of their very purpose, create an automatic and enduring adversarial relationship between employees and management. It is very difficult to have a "team" environment when the very nature of the set up is distrustful and adversarial. People tire very quickly of the stress and tension of constant battle.

And, finally, unions put leadership in a straightjacket.

Even most union people admit this one salient fact: If management could be trusted, unions would not be necessary. However, if employees don't feel like their leaders have their backs then they will look for someone else (unions) to look out for them.

So how vulnerable is your company to a union takeover? They may not be at your door now, but they may be there soon! How is your leadership perceived by your employees? What kind of communication lines have been established between employees and upper management? Do people believe they have a platform in which they will be genuinely heard? Do they feel they are secure in their jobs? Do they perceive your culture as affirming, appreciative and rewarding?

Remember it doesn't matter what you think of your culture, it only matters what they think!

The question then becomes where do you want to spend your money? Do you want to spend it on the miserable and expensive task of fighting unions and playing games? Or do you want to invest in a culture that will keep your employees from ever considering a union?

A fair, people-first culture is the only effective, long term defense against the intrusion of unions. Create this culture now, for a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure.