by Phil Wilson

State of the Unions – and LRI

Like most of us, I’m ready to turn the page on 2020. As I reflect on the year, however, I’m actually surprised at how much we’ve accomplished. Looking ahead to 2021, I think about how the lessons of this year may help us as the labor environment changes more dramatically than in the last half-century.

Like most companies, we were forced to pivot again and again this year. We recognize we were fortunate. I have friends whose businesses have been destroyed by the pandemic. Fortunately, we were able to survive and even thrive. There were challenging months. But our team stepped up and delivered again and again.

Speaking of stepping up, LRI began a strategic journey at the end of 2019, months before the pandemic upended everyone’s world. That work transformed our team in 2020. We looked back on our first 40 years(!) and recommitted for our next 40. We focused heavily on our core purpose, which is helping our clients create extraordinary workplaces. We led by our core values (one of them is Step Up!) We really came together as a team.

In the most challenging business environment we’ve ever faced we built new products, developed new services, and grew our capabilities. We’re not going back to 2019 – even when the pandemic is behind us, the world will never be the same. Here are a few things we handled this year that are likely to remain trends in 2021 and beyond:

  • Mail Ballot Elections: Mail ballot elections were exceedingly rare before 2020. Covid changed that, probably for good. Manual ballots will surely return once the pandemic ends, but regions will be much more likely to direct mail ballot elections post-pandemic. We spent a lot of effort working with clients and our consulting partners to develop the tools and tactics needed to win mail ballot elections. Rapidly prototyping, responding to feedback from our consulting team, learning from client experiences (plus a lot of trips to the printer) helped us quickly get to a place where mail ballots – while not preferred – are no longer a major concern.
  • Virtual Learning: Like mail ballot elections, virtual training is also here to stay. Figuring out how to train during a pandemic was also a huge obstacle to overcome. You can’t simply take your normal tools and start presenting them on Zoom or Teams. In partnership with a client we completely re-designed our Approachable Leadership Workshop (if you’re interested in a test drive let us know). This required a complete ground-up redesign to take advantage of what a virtual environment offers while keeping the core learning elements of our live workshop. We’ve also adapted elements of our Rapid Response Team training, Tripwire early warning signs training, and other content for a virtual environment.
  • Campaign Communications and Messaging: From virtual campaign consulting, to our popular explainer videos, updates on our campaign websites and Campaign in the Cloud tools, and cutting edge text messaging campaigns, we’ve also spent the year innovating for a new world of work. The uncertainty and fear of the pandemic environment has given unions a once in a generation opportunity to organize workers and they are taking advantage of every innovative tool they can. We’ve tried to do more than keep up. We want to be where the ball is going to be – in 2021 and beyond.
  • Research Services: We also continue to innovate how we deliver research and analysis to clients in the new virtual world. Our in-depth opposition and market research is second to none. And while our online databases are nothing new (we blazed that trail nearly 30 years ago) the team at LRI RightNow added more features and capability to our data services in 2020 than at any other time I can remember. We’ve always had the most comprehensive database available, but now you can slice and dice data in super useful new ways (including geo-targeting and MSA searches). Conducting searches is much more efficient and comprehensive than any other option. If you haven’t hit the research libraries in a while (including many that are free) you really owe yourself a tour.
  • Virtual Collective Bargaining and Vulnerability Assessment: We also blazed a trail in bargaining during a pandemic. Very early in the summer we negotiated our first agreement virtually, and successfully concluded many others since. Collaborating with clients, union leaders, and FMCS – and frankly learning a lot through experience with both the tools and techniques of bargaining remotely – we were able to build trust and get deals hammered out. We’ve also transformed our vulnerability assessment process so that it can be delivered virtually. These interventions are both better face-to-face. But what 2020 taught us is that doing them virtually is not only possible, but in certain situations preferable. I’m sure we will continue offering a virtual option of both after the pandemic.
  • Networking and Thought Leadership: The world is changing so rapidly that we quickly realized that we needed to invest more than ever in strengthening relationships with and between our clients. We’ve hosted regular virtual get-togethers with our clients and consulting partners where we share what’s happening in real time, collaborate around best practices, brainstorm new innovations, and simply connect. If you haven’t had a chance to attend one of these sessions let us know and we’ll add you to the invite list (this is a confidential, invitation-only meeting). This has been an important addition while people have been isolated, but we will continue these after the pandemic ends. It’s been one of my highlights for 2020 and it pushes me to continue to live our core values of pursuing excellence by constantly challenging yourself to improve and helping others.

Unions are transforming too. They are chomping at the bit for the “most labor-friendly Administration ever” and a Biden labor board and Department of Labor. They are working tirelessly as we speak to help Democrats regain control of the Senate and create that rare situation where the Executive and Legislative branches are in control of the same party. A lot is riding on Georgia and much more is riding on 2022.

With all of the chaos of the presidential election and transition controversy, it is easy to miss the biggest surprise of 2020: Republicans came very close to taking back the House and may retain control of the Senate. If Republicans manage to win one of the two(!) Senate runoff races in Georgia, they will retain control of the Senate, and the Mitch McConnell who gets Supreme Court Justices approved at light speed will hop right back into the slow lane when it comes to approving appointments in the new administration. My Republican friends in Georgia are concerned about those elections. But Democrats winning two must-win seats – in what has until recently been reliably Republican Georgia – still feels like a long shot to me. We’ll know soon enough.

Even if Democrats win control of the Senate, things won’t be smooth. Take the NLRB for example. It will be August 2021 (and realistically months after that) before the Democrats can gain a majority there, and that will require two appointments. Even with a Democrat-controlled Senate, there are a lot of appointments that need to be handled and Republicans will make sure that they take as long as possible to fill.

Like during the last two transitions where the presidency changed parties, it’s going to take a year and maybe longer before a new Board majority can get to work. But the union wish list is already there for them to start working on. My prediction is that 2022 will be a big year for labor law changes at the NLRB and DOL.

Because the Senate will be deadlocked no matter who retains control, it is hard to imagine that significant legislative labor law moves like the PRO Act will become law before 2023. And even that assumes that Democrats make big gains in the Senate during the mid-terms (which normally doesn’t happen).

While there are scenarios where a tied Senate could pass sweeping labor law changes before 2023, it would require an end to the filibuster which – at this point – they don’t have the votes for (Manchin for one says he won’t vote for it). Even if they get rid of the filibuster, they’d still need 50 Senators to pass it without significant amendment. That’s a lot of dominos that have to fall perfectly.

I’m not saying don’t be concerned about the PRO Act – the mid-terms will be here before you can say Mar-a-Lago. I’m just saying it’s not the central immediate concern. If you’re a government contractor, things will happen sooner than that – I fully expect a Biden Administration to test drive key elements of the PRO Act by imposing them on government contractors through Executive Order. But like the last two administrations, for private sector employers the agencies are where the real action remains.

Rest assured, whatever happens, we’ll be here to help. The one thing that never changes in this business is the best workplaces have the least to worry about when it comes to labor disruption. As Peter Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Which means now is the time for the best employers to get ready for breakfast.

I want to personally wish all of our clients and consulting partners a joyous and healthy holiday season with your family (whether virtually or face-to-face). Have a safe and happy New Year.