12/12/2012 - “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union. Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union ‘til the day I die.” – Words and Music by Woody Guthrie, also sung by Pete Seeger.

What Does “Right to Work” Mean?

The term “right to work” is getting a good deal of press these days because on December 11, 2011, Michigan became the 24th state to pass a “right to work” law. In order for a state to be a “right to work” state, the state legislature must pass a “right to work” law. “Right to work” simply means “the right to work without having to join a labor union.” Here’s an example . . . suppose you are in a “non-right to work state” -- like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and California -- 26 states altogether -- and suppose company employees are represented by a union. In non-right to work states, the union can “demand” a union shop agreement in the union contract, meaning that employees must pay union dues, even if they don’t want to be union members. The message is, “Sure, you don’t have to actually join the union, but you still have to pay union dues.” Those states also allow unions to demand a closed shop, where the employer agrees to hire only union members. In a “right to work” state – like Florida, Virginia, Wyoming--24 states altogether--union shops and closed shops are prohibited. Instead, unions and employers agree on an open shop, where employees who want to join a union and pay union dues are allowed to, but employees who don’t want to join a union and pay union dues are not forced to do so against their will.

To a reasonable person, a right to work provision seems only fair and just. However, unions despise right to work states with a vengeance because the union shop provision provides the union with economic security, the kind of economic security where all employees are compelled to pay dues, whether they want to or not. President Obama recently referred to “right to work” as “the right to work for lower pay.” With all due respect to the President, a right to work provision has nothing to do with pay, but has to do with whether an employee is compelled to pay union dues, against his or her will. At this point, it is instructive to note that, currently, union membership for private sector workers is under 6.9%, according to the New York Times, down from a high of over 40% in the 50’s and 60’s. The percentage of government workers who are union members is 36.2%. As Arte Johnson used to say on the 70’s TV show “Laugh In,” “Very Interesting . . .”. “Right to work” is sometimes confused with “employment at will,” which is an entirely different subject having nothing to do with unions, and simply means employment without an employment contract.

How Do Unions Get In?

Unions can represent employees if a majority of employees vote for the union, in a secret ballot election supervised by the NLRB.[1] For a union to demand an election, a minimum of 30% of employees must sign union authorization cards or, in some cases, a petition. The Obama administration wants to change this procedure to a system called “card check,” where a union would automatically represent employees, if more than 50% of them signed union cards. This change is high on the administration’s agenda so our recommendation is keep a close eye out for it, as it would not be employer friendly. Our experience shows that employees sign union cards for a variety of reasons, not just because they may want a union. I have personally been involved in union elections where a majority of employees signed union cards, but where the union lost the election.

What Should You Do?

As someone once said, in a different context, the price of remaining union free is eternal vigilance because we believe union activity is going to be on the upswing.

If you want to remain union free, here is what we recommend:

    1. First and foremost, have a commitment and a policy of treating all employees equally and fairly, and with respect and dignity, so that they don’t want a labor union and don’t think they need one to represent them.

    2. Make sure your Open Door and Complaint Procedure Policies are working.

    3. Consider establishing an 800 number with an outside consultant that employees can call, confidentially and anonymously, with complaints and questions.

    4. Train your supervisors in how to recognize the signs of a union campaign and how to talk with employees about unions.

    5. Have Seay Management conduct a management workshop for your managers and supervisors on “How To Remain Union Free.”

    6. Conduct an employee opinion survey every 18-24 months, to find out about how your employees feel and what they think about working for you. If you don’t ask them, you won’t know.

At Seay Management, our philosophy is that our employees are our most important assets and we will only be as good as our employees. Please call your Seay Management consultant if you have any questions about unions or their impact on your business. We appreciate having you as a friend and client of our firm and will be delighted to talk with you and help you achieve your HR objectives.

[1] The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, is the government agency tasked with overseeing labor relations in America.

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