Union Activity Heats Up: Are You Staying Engaged with Your Employees?

Upon returning from a weekend of wine tasting with friends in Temecula, CA, I was jolted from my Bordeaux bliss by headlines of union activity heating up across the United States. “Facebook Shuttle Drivers Vote to Ratify New Teamsters Contract” roared the Wall Street Journal. Facebook drivers had just ratified a contract that increases their pay from $18 an hour to $24.50. Another WSJ headline read “Strikes at U. S. Refineries Widens.” The article pointed out “More than 6,500 United Steelworkers members are now on strike at 15 petrochemical facilities…including 12 refineries that account for 19% of U.S. refining capacity.” The workers were concerned with safety and also wanted refinery owners to replace contract maintenance workers with better-trained union members.

During the first ten years of my career, I was in labor relations – the smoked-filled room type. I met many union leaders who were just as concerned about the company’s economic well being as they were with the pay, rights and dignity of their members. I met just as many, however, who were more concerned about winning at any cost and advancing their place in the union hierarchy.

We labor relations specialists had two adages we frequently saw play out. The first was “If you don’t have a union you don’t want one.” This wasn’t necessarily due to increased wage and benefit costs but the damaging deterioration of workplace productivity, decreased ability to rapidly change and stay current in the market place, and lessened employee morale. The second adage was “No company had a union that didn’t deserve one.”  What we meant by that was, if a company had stayed engaged with its workers in the first place, the union-organizing attempt would probably not have happened.

The U.S. recovery is in its sixth year and, although the last two quarters have seen a spurt in wage increases, wages in general have been slow to rise. Meanwhile, corporations have a lot of cash. One good example of wage increases, however, was Walmart’s announcement last week to raise its starting pay to $9.00/hour – $1.75 over the federal minimum wage. Walmart will also allow workers more flexibility with their schedules (recognizing that its workers often have two jobs)!

Now would be a good time to make sure that your pay and benefits are not only staying current with your industry and location norms, but also high enough to enable you to compete in an ever-tightening labor market. More importantly, I suggest that you engage with your workforce. It turns out that most union campaigns are not over higher wages as much as employees feeling over-worked, ignored, and disengaged from management and the organization’s purpose.

Do you know the top concerns of your workforce? Are your employees aligned with your company’s purpose? Do you see growing signs of restlessness?

When was the last time your organization held engagement interviews with employees to determine what they like or don’t like about their work? Do you know the career aspirations of every individual? If not, you might want to take action.

What is your favorite employee engagement strategy?  I would love to hear from you.

Victor Assad is a strategic human resource consultant and coach who works with key decision makers and human resource leaders on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and merger and acquisition initiatives.  Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com.

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