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Davis Brown Employment and Labor Law Blog

Growing Fears May Equal Growing Efforts to Unionize - May 28, 2020

Growing employee health and safety concerns could give rise to a wave of union organizing activity in the coming months. Over the past 20 years, union membership has declined significantly and despite efforts to increase membership, the numbers continue to fall.

According to the Department of Labor, just over 6% of non-government workers were union members in 2019, which has decreased drastically from nearly 10% just 20 years ago and 30% in 1950.

Pandemic May be Increasing Interest in Unionizing

However, the pandemic is increasing anxiety among many workers that their employers are not doing enough to protect their health in the workplace. Since March, employees in fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals, meatpacking plants, and warehouse distribution centers have threatened or staged walkouts over the perceived lack of safety protection from their employers.

Recognizing these concerns, many unions have increased their online presence to attract new members who have concerns about safety. The Teamsters Union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Communication Workers of America, and other unions have launched online resource centers or action sites aimed at helping nonunion workers secure protections by flexing their labor rights. Because the unions are making information so readily available and empowering the everyday worker, the unions hope that workers with concerns about safety will turn to a union for protection.

Reduce the Likelihood of an Organizing Drive

If employers fail to take workplace safety concerns of employees seriously, the employer could be vulnerable to a union organizing drive. The promise of improved working conditions is now more important than ever for employers to consider for employee relations. Some steps employers should consider to reduce the likelihood of an organizing drive include:

  • Communicate regularly with employees about your safety plan. Let them know what guidance you are following, what procedures you are implementing, and why.
  • Be open to suggestions from concerned employees. In fact, you should consider soliciting employee input on return to work practices and workplace safety practices.
  • Review federal, state, and local guidance on recommended steps to protect workers in your specific work environment.
  • Establish clear guidelines for employee safety, particularly in situations where employees have direct contact with the public.
  • Provide proper personal protective equipment to your employees, including masks and gloves where appropriate.
  • Establish sanitation procedures, making hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes available whenever and wherever possible. You may even consider an outside cleaning service.
  • Extend work from home policies and procedures where possible.
  • Have a strategy for dealing with any organizing drive that includes training managers on what to look for, what they can say, and what they can do to assist in the effort.

The Big Picture

While employee concerns have yet to translate into significant gains for the unions, and there remain any number of barriers to mounting a union campaign, we strongly encourage all employers to review training and safety processes and procedures with counsel. Consider what can be done to promote workplace safety and protect employees so that employees are not encouraged to look elsewhere for help.

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