by Phil Wilson

What A Difference A Month Makes

Many of you are reading this sheltering in place somewhere in the US. I write this as I shelter in place at home in Oklahoma, where the COVID-19 crisis is taking hold. I am very grateful that my family (including my extended LRI family) is, as of now, healthy and safe. I hope yours is as well.

Companies around the country are scrambling to react to this unprecedented crisis. Healthcare workers on the front lines are absolute heroes and heroines in a crisis situation (here are some great tips if you want to help). Many others are risking their health to keep essential services available, including first responders, grocery and pharmacy employees, food and package delivery workers, manufacturers producing essential goods such as protective gear, and many, many others.

Non-essential businesses are scrambling as well, doing all they can to keep people employed as long as possible. Re-working their businesses to accommodate remote working and taking sick time off with pay whenever possible. The government is also working furiously to provide ways for businesses and individuals to weather this crisis and keep people working as long as possible.

Unfortunately, even during this unprecedented crisis, unions are taking full advantage of the situation. They are pressuring the NLRB to begin conducting elections immediately using mail ballots and telephone hearings. Organizers continue to meet with employees and file petitions even while the NLRB has postponed all elections out of safety concerns for its staff and the employees who will vote in elections. Late last night they negotiated into the $2 trillion stimulus package a commitment that mid-sized employers who take out loans must remain neutral in union organizing elections during the term of that loan.

At the same time unions are taking every opportunity to bash employers and the government – both represented employers and direct relationship ones – for any perceived faults, such as lack of Personal Protective Equipment. Never mind that these are problems worldwide and that union representation can do exactly nothing to fix them. They are also encouraging walkouts and wildcat strikes and objecting to telework provisions not in current labor agreements; they are affirmatively making things worse. Further, unions are filing massive information requests with companies, creating additional strain on staff who are scrambling to react to a crisis and keep their teams safe and healthy.

Unions are also taking credit for anything positive that happens during this crisis:

  • Got a wage increase? We did that!
  • Got sick pay? We did that!
  • Got a check from the government? We did that?
  • Got unemployment pay? We did that!

Look, I recognize that union lobbying has added things to these packages, just as lobbying from businesses and other interest groups has shaped the packages. But these things are happening in an unprecedented bipartisan fashion (last night’s stimulus package passed unanimously – let that sink in).

Unions taking a victory lap in a situation like this is unconscionable. But that’s just par for the course. And employers – even though they are consumed with responding to the crisis and keeping employees as safe and healthy as possible – must at the same time make sure they are not sitting back and letting unions campaign unopposed during this crisis. Here are some practical things you can be doing right now:

  1. Look for the silver lining: There is no shortage of terrible news today. We are in a crisis, and it’s likely you’re already communicating at a pace like never before. Much of that is the “need-to-know” information about how the operation is responding to the crisis and protecting the team. Make sure to also take a brief moment to reflect on the positive things that come out of situations like this. The importance of your mission. Being community-minded and taking care of others. Highlighting examples of taking care of each other. Becoming closer as a team. This disease has caused so much pain and so much suffering all over the world – it is important as leaders to ensure the team is also reflecting on ways this experience can make us better and stronger when the pain is over; and it will eventually be over.
  2. Counter union messaging: Unions are continuing to organize, and they are taking full advantage of the pause in union elections to continue to build support and plant the seeds of future elections. If your company is a target of organizing it is important to counter these messages. This is doubly true for companies that currently have postponed elections or where unions are visibly organizing (holding meetings, hand-billing, etc.). While this activity is shameful – adding additional distraction at a time when people should be focused on serving others and staying healthy – that’s what’s happening and will continue to happen. Think carefully about what you can do now to counter these messages. When employees express frustration with the unwelcome interruption of union organizers be sure to acknowledge and empathize with that frustration. Ask organizers to stand down during the crisis. If they refuse, continue to communicate with workers virtually. The same tools you are using to run your business remotely can easily be deployed to continue training and communications.
  3. Prepare for the return to the “new normal”: The other key work you can do today is to prepare for the period when we get back to the “new normal,” whatever that is. Scenario plan for elections to be held by mail ballot and for limits (and perhaps bans) on group meetings. Train managers now on the things they’ll need to know when campaigns start back up. Figure out what you will do if your company ends up under a neutrality provision (there are many valuable things to communicate even under a neutrality agreement). Anticipate the campaign messages unions will use to persuade your workforce. Many of our companies are in a holding pattern at the moment, but the moves you make today will position you for success (or failure) when the world turns back around.

Rest assured that we are here to help. Even while the labor relations world has been put on “pause” we continue to work relentlessly to serve our clients. We will continue to monitor things and update you when we think that’s helpful. If you have any questions at all about your specific situation I encourage you to contact us. We are also planning a number of virtual meetings where clients can share experience and compare notes about what they are going through during these unprecedented times. And most importantly, especially for those folks on the front-lines of this crisis, please stay safe and healthy and take care of each other.