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Step by Step Through a Union Campaign

At the first sign of union organizing, company management often decides to do

whatever is necessary to defeat the union, as one corporate vice president put it. Without
advance thought or preparation, the company launches a policy of resistance and often winds up
before the National Labor Relations Board charged with unfair labor practices. Sometimes the
company even finds itself burdened with multimillion dollar lawsuits.
Its hasty decisions to deal with the short run become strategic errors in the long run. But
responding to a union campaign need not end up this way. Being prepared for each stage of the
process of campaigning and negotiating, argues the author of this article, is the best way for both
labor and management to avoid serious mistakes and to present employees with the information
they need to cast an informed vote.
Mr. Fulmer is associate professor of human resources management at the University of
Alabamas Graduate School of Business. He has done extensive research on union campaigns
and is currently completing a book on the subject. He has written one other HBR article
When Employees Want to Oust Their Union (MarchApril 1978).
A union organizing campaign may look like a brief process of exchanging a few simple letters
and handbills and holding an election that quickly settles the issue. But a union campaign is
actually a fairly long process that usually goes through the following stages.
Identifying the targetA union effort often starts when a disgruntled employee contacts
a local union office to learn how to organize at a place of work. Sometimes a campaign
starts when a union decides that a company has strategic importance or looks like an
easy target and then initiates contact with employees at their workplace.
Once a company becomes a target, union official usually does research on it and assigns a
representative to follow up on the initial contact.
Determining interestThe union representative visits the company to find out whether
enough employees are interested in the union to make a campaign worthwhile, which
employees would make good leaders in an organizing campaign, and which company
policies and practices might affect such an effort.
Setting up an organizing committeethe union representative calls together the
employees identified as leaders and establishes them as an organizing committee. The
objective of this phase is to educate the committee about the benefits of forming a
union, the law and procedures involved in forming a local union, and the issues
management is likely to raise during a campaign.
Next, the committee members begin to contact other employees to determine their interest in
the union and their willingness to serve on the committee.
Building interestSoliciting employees to sign authorization cards begins during this
stage, which is often when management wakes up to what is going on. At this point, the
union campaign usually goes public with an exchange of leaflets, handbills, and letters.
At another point, the union may publicly identify the committee members to protect them (in
case key union members are discharged, management cannot claim it did not know who the key
supporters were) and to induce workers to consider signing the union card. Although to call for
an election the union by law needs only 30% of the employees in a unit to sign cards, most
organizers wait to announce that the union represents a majority of the employees until at least
50% sign and usually until 60% to 80% sign.
Once this announcement is made, the union usually demands recognition as the bargaining
representative for the employees. If in good faith management doubts the majority status and
declines to recognize the union, the union petitions the National Labor Relations Board for
Holding an NLRB hearingBefore an election is conducted, the NLRB usually holds a
hearing. The NLRB appoints a hearing officer who seeks to answer the following
questions: Is there a question of representation? Does the employer qualify for coverage
by the NLRB? Is the union a labor organization within the meaning of the National Labor
Relations Act? Do any existing collective bargaining agreements or prior elections bar
the petitioner from representation? Is the proposed unit appropriate? Is the eligibility of
certain employees questionable? Is the show of employee interest sufficient to justify an
Once the questions have been answered to the satisfaction of the regional director of the NLRB,
the board usually orders an election and sets a date for it.
Launching a campaignBefore the election, both the union and the company make
steady appeals to employees for their votes. During this time, management must
prepare a list of eligible voters for the NLRB and post notices of the election and sample
ballots in conspicuous places throughout the workplace.
Holding an electionThe election is usually held 30 days after the NLRB order.
Evaluating election resultsOnce the votes are cast and counted, any person who
believes that the boards election standards were not met may, within five days after the
tally of ballots, file objections to the election with the NLRBs regional director. If the
director finds the objections substantial, he or she may order a new election or hearing
to determine the validity of the objections. If no one files objections or if the director
dismisses them, the NLRB issues a certification of the results of the election. If the union
wins, both parties prepare to negotiate their first contract.
If a companys management is to be well prepared to meet a union organizing effort, it must
know what to expectnot only the phases through which the union effort will pass but also the
decisions management will have to consider making during this effort. These decisions chiefly
concern costs, themes, campaigners, tactics, and timing.
Campaign Costs & Benefits
At the start, management and the union must weigh the costs and the benefits of launching a
campaign. Will the effort be worth what they put into it?
For management
A campaign to oppose the organizing effort usually entails at least four short-run costs for
managementlegal services, loss of employee time, loss of executive time, and temporarily
reduced productivity. A study shows that in 1975 the cost per employee for a company of 100
approximated $123.60 and for a company of l,000 employees, $101.60.1 Since these calculations
assume an average wage of $3.50 per hour plus $l.00 for fringe benefits and since the average
hourly earnings for private-sector, no supervisory employees rose to $6.62 in 1980, the campaign
costs are considerably higher today.2
In addition to short-run costs, the company must expect long-run costs such as the negative
effect on the employee-management relationship a campaign may have. Also, if the union wins,
the company must consider what the effect of the campaign will be on the union-management
relationship. Will the union respect management for waging a tough fight or try to retaliate later?
To offset the companys campaign, will union organizers make big promises that they will have
to honor during the first contract negotiations? What effect will the campaign have on the
relationship between first-line supervisors and bargaining unit employees?
lf the union is defeated, management must conjecture whether the union will return the next
year. What if the election is close? Will the divided work force create an unstable labor situation?
Will a more militant union seek representation next time?
The benefits of remaining nonunion, from the companys viewpoint, are avoiding strikes; having
flexibility, competitive advantages in hiring, low labor costs, and low turnover rates; spending
little managerial time on grievances and contract negotiations; and remaining firmly in control.3
For the union
Unions are becoming increasingly budget conscious in this period of double-digit inflation. To
control expenses, at least one large union has centralized the coordination of its major campaigns
and left the smaller ones to regional and local officials. It screens proposals for requirements in
investment, staff, time, and per diem cost. It considers the degree of industry control it might
gain from a successful campaign and its prospects for later organizing activity in an industry.
Although this union considers the costs important, its president has approved every campaign
that he has believed vital to the unions interest.
Campaign Themes & Issues
Over the past five years, I have interviewed a number of managers and union officials about
their organizing campaigns. In these efforts, most of the companies have based their opposition
on their own merits or on the drawbacks of the union in question, and the unions have usually
based their appeals on the shortcomings of a particular company.
Of management
If management decides to oppose the organizing effort, it usually runs one of the following types
of campaign:
AntiunionSome companies criticize unions in general. They stress the evils of
unionism and make every effort to link labor organizations with whatever employees
think is bad. In the 1950s and 1960s, some managers, particularly in the South, tried to
tie unions to integration and other civil rights efforts. In more recent campaigns,
managers have tried to connect labor organizations with corruption and communism.
Anti this unionMany companies, of course, focus their opposition on one union in
particular. For example, in a letter to his employees, one company executive quoted a
union presidents boast that his organization had issued more strike authorizations and
supported more strikes in the past 10 years than any other union in the industry.
Pro companyRather than run against the unions record, management sometimes
chooses to run on its own record. In one company, a manager wrote a letter to
employees stating how much better their benefits were at the company without the
union than they would be if they worked at a nearby company organized by the same
union. The letter contained a comparison of 24 benefits, ranging from wages to cafeteria
You have rights, butManagers sometimes run a very low-key campaign in which they
ask employees to vote against the union but remind them that the decision is really up
to them.
One companys president wrote a letter to employees to correct union misstatements by saying:
You have the right to deal with us directly without the intervention of a union on any matter,
both with respect to either present benefits or the consideration of any new or additional
benefits We wish to make it perfectly clear, however, that you have the right to join a union.
You have, of course, just as much right not to join.
Most management campaigns are a combination of anti this union and pro company, with
an occasional element of the other two themes. Sometimes, what starts out as a you have rights
but or a pro company campaign becomes more of an anti this union effort. Often
management gives little attention to maintaining a consistent theme.
Eventually, however, management finds that it must stress certain issues in a campaign. A study
of 33 elections shows that the average company campaign involves 30 issues and the average
union campaign 25 but that employees usually recall only three company issues and between two
and three union issues.4 It is therefore vital that a company focus on the issues that are central to
the employees and not waste effort on others.5
In an antiunion or an anti this union campaign, six issues are common.
Strike record
One of these is the unions strike record. Managements objective is to raise the workers fear of
disruption and losing income. Some companies make the point by illustrating how long it would
take to recoup the lost wages from a strike or the amount of money that employees would lose
each day of a strike. To all its employees one company mailed a statement listing the numerous
strikes that the national union had called in the previous five years123 strikes in all.
Corruption & abuse
Another common issue companies choose is union corruption. In a letter to its employees, one
company stated that Senate hearings several years before had exposed the unions goingson
and that the official government testimony clearly indicated what was said and what was not
said but hidden behind the Fifth Amendment.
Some companies point out union rules and punishments that appear autocratic or threatening to
personal liberties. In one campaign, management cited a case in which a union member had been
fined for going to church instead of union meetings. The union meetings had been on Sunday
morning, and the bylaws had required any member missing three out of five meetings to be fined
Some companies call the reliability and competence of the union into question by citing cases in
which the union has based its campaign on erroneous claims.6
Membership cost
Another point management makes an issue is the cost of belonging to a union. Dues,
membership fees, and special assessments may be expensive, management is quick to say. Some
companies mail employees two checks on payday, one reflecting the amount of dues that would
be deducted each pay period and the other the amount of money each person could take home
after the dues had been deducted. In some cases unions have inadvertently made the dues issue
even more significant by raising dues during the campaign without announcing it. In one
campaign such a raise enabled management to ask, What will the minimum dues be next time?
Threats to benefits
Some companies tell employees that unions cannot guarantee them anything. Such a statement is
often an implied threat to take away the employees benefits. As one letter from management
stated: In the event that the union ever got into this company, management would only be
obligated to bargain in good faith. But all matters of wages and benefits would have to be
bargained for. It is perfectly possible that in conceding one demand, other existing benefits could
be reduced.
In the same campaign, management pointed out the NLRBs position regarding making
promises of promotions, raises, or other benefits to influence employees before an election,
The law recognizes that the union is not a party capable of carrying out any such promise,
management told employees. As a result, the law allows the union to make any promises it
wishes because it cannot carry its promises out.
If the union has a losing record, the company usually stresses it. One management letter
proclaimed that the union in question was a losers union and identified several recent
elections within the industry that the union had lost. The letter concluded, Dont join a sinking
Company merits
In a more positive campaign, managers stress their companys best side, often by comparing its
wages and benefits with the less attractive compensation at other companies in the area or
industry. One benefit that employers emphasize is job securityparticularly the absence of
layoffs in the companys history or the growth of the company, which suggest future promotion
opportunities and the unlikelihood of layoffs.
A company sometimes tries to present an image of employees and managers being one big
happy family. This is usually combined with the assertion that we do not need an outsider
intruding into family affairs. If it is time, this claim can be appealing, but too often executives
make such claims when most of the evidence suggests otherwise.
Distaste for change
Managers occasionally play on the dislike that many workers have for change and their fear of
the unknown. Companies may admit to the employees that they have made mistakes and need
one more chance. Such an appeal is usually combined with claims that you can always elect
the union next year if we fail and if you did vote the union in, you will probably be stuck with
it as long as you work here.
Of the Union
Unlike company campaigns, union campaigns vary little in theme but considerably in issues. The
usual union themes are managements shortcomings and employees need to organize as a way of
forcing the company to deal with their problems.
Although in many campaigns the union devotes attention to the general benefits of unionism,
most of its effort centers on identifying the inadequacies of management at a particular company
and how a certain union can deal with them. Four issues dominated the campaigns I have
studiedcompensation, job security, poor management, and worker control.
In the words of one veteran union organizer, Wages are an issue in any campaign. Its just a
matter of degree. Frequently the issue is simply inadequate or uncompetitive pay. In one case,
two employees who, along with other employees, had not received an increase in several years
and were working nights and weekends to make enough money to pay their bills got in touch
with several unions to see what could be done about their situation.
Occasionally wages do not become an issue at all. In one campaign the contention about
compensation did not catch on even though unionized employees at one of the other company
plants were receiving quite a bit more per hour. According to one of the organizers involved,
Evidently these people couldnt imagine rates being from $1.60 to $3.00 more than theirs; it was
too far out. The compensation issue in another campaign proved ineffective because certain
workers would not admit that they had low pay or that they had not received a wage increase for
In addition to pay levels, confusing or subjective wage systems sometimes become an issue. For
example, workers often think merit systems are influenced by favoritism. In a plant where 500
out of l,200 employees received a merit increase, the union posted notices saying: What
happened to the other 700 people? Through a union contract, all employees get increases. There
are no favorite groups.
Incentive systems can also become a source of argument. Prior to an organizing campaign in one
company, 50 employees met with the personnel manager to complain that, as a result of a change
in the speed of a conveyor, on only one day in several months had they been able to meet the
new standard and never had they reached the level where incentive earnings became effective.
The company took no action on their complaint. The employees dropped their complaint at that
time but later organized a union.
Gaps in benefits or poor administration of benefits can be a major problem. From a unions
standpoint, lack of long-term disability insurance for disabled employees, for instance, can
become a highly emotional rallying point.7
In the campaign to organize a large financial institution, a key issue became the absence of an
employer-paid hospital and medical care program. Although smaller companies in the same area
had such a program, the companys largest stockholder opposed it on the ground that the good
of the country would be served best if employees paid their own medical bills. An inadequate
pension plan became a major problem in one large plant when the union asked, Why hasnt the
company told you about the 89 cents a month pension they gave one employee?
Job security
An organizing effort often starts when employees feel that their jobs are threatened. That fear
arises especially when an outside company purchases a locally controlled company or a new
management team comes into power. When technological changes reduce the number of jobs
available, employees become very receptive to organizing appeals. Where there are layoffs,
especially where seniority has not been considered, employees worry about job security and may
accuse management of playing favorites.
Poor management
Managers unfairness and inconsistency in handling such matters as discipline, wage increases,
and promotions are among the management practices that become union issues. Often it is just a
few heavy-handed managers who turn a large number of generally satisfied employees into a
disgruntled work force.
A major issue in one campaign, for instance, was a factory superintendent with complete
authority over the production work force who workers felt played one employee against another.
They feared being fired if they complained to the superintendents superior. One management
level was supporting the next even though it was at fault.
In another campaign, employees viewed a manager who was very successful at generating profits
as autocratic and often unfair. Even though annual turnover in his department was 35%, the
highest in the company, the chief executive said that because the managers performance was
high, Well just have to live with his people problems.
In one company, not only had the managers violated the National Labor Relations Act by
committing several unfair labor practices, but they had also used incorrect information about the
union in letters to employees. Employees felt that they could not trust management.
Worker control
Today, employees are less reluctant to speak out about work conditions than in earlier times. For
this reason, some unions are successful in attacking managements reluctance to give employees a
voice in deciding on wages, hours, and working conditions.
In one campaign the union organizers attacked a companys complaint review board for lack of
worker representation. They claimed that under a contract employees would have a grievance
committee composed of workers from their own ranks that would have some say in
compensation decisions. After our election, the organizers said, we trust that intelligent
management will sit down across the bargaining table with an intelligent elected union committee
and negotiate a workable contract which cannot be broken by either party.
Campaign Organizers
Both company and union must decide which people to involve in the campaign and whether
outside help is necessary.
Managements campaigners
Whether to bring outside specialists such as consultants and lawyers into the campaign and
which managers inside the company to include are two decisions management faces.
Management should consider not only the cost of outside specialists but also the impact that
their services may have on the campaign. When the union knows their usual tactics or hears of
their fees, outsiders can become an issue. They can reduce the effectiveness of managements
claim that it needs no outside agent in the employee-management relationship, and the
relationship between them and the personnel office can cause trouble.
In one corporate subsidiary that hired a consulting firm, top management fired its personnel
manager of 18 years, allegedly because of his opposition to the consultants tactics. Less than two
months before the election, management dropped the consultants and had to borrow an
expert from the parent company.
If, however, management plans to go to the brink of unfair labor practice in its campaign and yet
not actually commit any unfair labor practice or if the managers in decision-making positions
have never been involved in a campaign and plan to resist the union, getting good legal advice is
Once management has resolved the matter of the outsider, it must decide which company
people to involve in the campaign.
At what level should the campaign be controlled? it must ask. Some companies allow local
personnel to control, whereas in others a corporate personnel team takes charge. Should one
person make most of the decisions, or should a committee be appointed? Should line managers
or personnel managers direct the campaign? What role should first-line superiors play? Who
should handle group meetings, and who should write letters to employees? Management usually
chooses to write to current employees, and in some cases to retirees and their family members.
The choice of people to communicate with employees is critical. One company selected its
president to meet with employees and to sign letters to them since he was well liked. To
strengthen his relationship with employees, the company had used him over the years to
communicate with employees whenever there was good news to report. After a speech in which
he urged employees to vote against the union, several came to him and apologized for those who
were creating trouble for his company.
In contrast, another company chose its assistant personnel director as its contact with employees.
When they asked him why the company did not pay its work force more, he replied, If you
want more money, go out and get yourself an education as I did. In an internal union memo, a
union organizer wrote that this really ticked the whole bunch offsigners and nonsigners. We
hope theyll keep using him.
Union Campaigners
Deciding how many organizers to bring into a campaign, one top union official told me, depends
on the geographic area over which the employees are spread, the number of simultaneous
campaigns being organized, whether the employer has a reputation for violating the law, and the
stage the campaign is in.
According to another union official, weekly meetings of the in-plant organizing committee turn
interested employees into organizers. He wants committee members not only organizing on the
job but also calling on employees in their homes and gathering information on company policies
after work.
Frequently, unions feel obligated to ask the employees who initially contact them to serve as key
members of the organizing committee. In one campaign a key organizer became one of
managements strongest issues, for he was often rude to his fellow employees. One time, while
passing out union literature on company property, he had even provoked a fight with one of
them. Unions prefer to choose employees who are mobile, as maintenance employees are, and
who are respected by many workers and willing to take personal risks, for they make good
In some cases unions make use of outside groups to help in organizing. Inviting local politicians
to meetings sometimes increases interest in a union. Establishing contact with the local police
department helps the union if the employer later calls in the police to break up union activity
near the plant. In areas where churches are strong, unions often seek support from priests and
ministers to break down workers resistance to unions.
Campaign Tactics
Once they have decided who will be in charge of the campaign, both union and management
generally turn their attention to how to carry it out. Budget constraints and the need for variety
and impact influence their decision.
Of management
If it can anticipate the moves of the union at each stage, management can deal with union
actions effectively as well as take the initiative in appealing to employees.
Acting before the election
Usually the first evidence of union organizing is the appearance of someone handing out leaflets
in or near the plant. The reaction of some managers is to stop such soliciting on company
property. If, however, they have not already established a rule against it and if they have not
applied the rule to all cases, including charitable organizations, they cannot deny the union such
access without committing an unfair labor practice.
Both union and management have much at stake in the composition of the bargaining unit.
Whether it should be broadbig enough to include all the clerks, for instance, in the retail stores
of an areaor narrowas small as to include the clerks in only one storeis something to
consider. The composition may greatly affect the outcome of the election, since both parties may
have reliable information about the intention of employees long before a secret-ballot election is
Occasionally a company includes certain people in the unit solely because they are likely to vote
against the union. If the union wins, management may regret having ceded these people to the
union. Even if the union loses, employees who have thought of themselves as being part of
management but whom it has categorized as members of the bargaining unit along with hourly
employees may feel that the company has sold them out.
Having many small units may mean that labor and management are constantly involved in
negotiations but that no unit can by itself close down the plant with a strike. Having one large
unit may reduce the time spent in negotiations but makes a strike to shut down the entire
operation possible.
Unfortunately, some companies decide to use unfair labor practices to stall an election. Since
employees complaints about such practices can take the NLRB months and even years to
process, management can thereby destroy an organizing effort or at least signal to employees that
the union is ineffective.
Before undertaking such action, however, management should recognize its disadvantages. First,
it is of course an abuse of the legal system, which was designed to help work out compromises in
good faith, not to hinder negotiations. Second, the charges may be serious enough to cause the
NLRB to order management to bargain with the union. Third, the long-range effect may be to
increase the chances of very restrictive labor legislation being enacted. Fourth, committing unfair
labor practices provides a major issue for the union to use in its campaignthat management
cannot be trusted. Fifth, such action may convince employees that they need a union to protect
them from injustice.
Bargaining after the election
If the union wins the election, management must decide whether to bargain, refuse to bargain, or
bargain very toughly as a way of breaking the union or appealing the NLRBs earlier decision
about the composition of the bargaining unit.
If management wins, it must decide what to do about the key union supporters. Will introducing
immediate changes in wages, hours, and working conditions to correct deficiencies prevent
another election, or will avoiding such changes discourage employees from expecting
improvements after organizing drives end?
Of the Union
Companies and unions face many similar tactical matters, but some are unique to unions.
Using authorization cards
One is whether to use authorization cards, and if so, how to get employees to sign them. Some
organizers prefer to solicit them individually through contact with committee members in their
departments, at employees homes, or in small meetings. Others attach the cards to leaflets and
distribute them.
Another question is whether to present the cards to management and ask for recognition or go
directly to the NLRB. Some organizers prefer to approach management before they go to the
board, even though recognition of the union without an election is unlikely. According to one
union official, the employer often responds to the demand for recognition with a wage increase
to demonstrate that the employees do not need a union to obtain such benefits.
Filing charges
Another tactic that some organizers use, particularly when confronted with a company that
commits unfair labor practices, is to file a spate of charges in an effort to harass it and increase
its legal costs.
Bargaining for a contract
If the union wins the election, it must decide whether to push for a strong first contract as a way
to justify itself to its new members or to settle quickly and moderately so as not to force
management into a union-breaking attitude. The union may think ahead about pursuing
significant economic gains or settling for smaller gains with a strong union security clause so as
to ensure its survival. If the union loses, it frequently decides to try again in 12 months and to
reassure its supporters that they will not be abandoned during the next few months.
Campaign Timing
Momentum and timing are as important to union campaigns as they are to political elections.
Well-organized campaigners plan their actions in advance so that leaders time can be wisely
For management
As soon as the date for an election is set, a good plan for a company management committee is
to set up a detailed campaign schedule. Some companies begin by deciding what they would like
to have as the last activity before the election and then work backward for the remaining weeks.
Only in one campaign that I studied did managers consider momentum and then only after the
campaign was well under way. For weeks, the union would attack various management practices,
and management would counterattack. In one thrust, the union concluded a leaflet with the
statement that we will await your reply. The vice president of personnel acknowledged that
when he read that sentence, he knew he had been conducting a reactive campaign. From that
point on, he took the initiative by raising his own issues and ignoring the unions. Eventually, the
union began to react to the companys issues.
For unions
One very successful union organizer indicated that his policy was never to react openly to
company literature. Instead, he would take the initiative in developing concerns and rely on the
inplant committee to induce workers to discuss the unions issues rather than managements.
Another timing decision a union makes is when to set up an employee organizing committee. If
the union finds enough employees interested in serving on a committee, it organizes them as a
committee and then decides on a time to announce their names to the rest of the company.
Next, it decides when to distribute leaflets. Although circulating them early may generate some
employee interest in the campaign, holding off till the organizing effort is well under way can
give the union a definite advantage over management. In one campaign involving only 40
employees, the union organizers had worked for a whole six months and had had a majority
signed up before it ever handed out leaflets. It was not until the first leaflet appeared at the plant
entrance that managers had any idea that union activity existed in their company. Even then, they
believed that the majority of their employees did not want a union. Six weeks later, however, the
union won by a 32 to 5 vote (three employees abstained).
Each year the number of union campaigns increases. It has gone up nearly 25% since the 1950s,
and so have the costs.
Before passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, however, organizing for a union
campaign was even more expensive and the result far less conclusive. Often a campaign merely
resulted in industrial unrest, for employees had only raw economic power to force managers to
recognize them. Since 1935, the weapon of conflict has become the ballot box.
Appreciating the merits of the NLRB election process may induce companies and unions to
prepare for each of its stages and to keep its costs under control. By thinking ahead, companies
and unions can make the most of a process that was designed to meet the needs of unions,
managers, and employees.