Lessons in Labor: Takeaways from Recent Unionization Efforts Across the Country

Seemingly every day, there is a new headline regarding worker unionization. Since the summer of 2021, workers at over 200 Starbucks locations across the country have expressed interest in organization activity and have explored the possibility of unionization. In another recent example, in April 2022 Amazon workers voted to unionize a warehouse in Staten Island, making it the first organized Amazon warehouse in the country.

While many of our clients have historically not been the subject of unionization efforts, it is clear that there is interest in unionization from employees who may not have seriously considered it in past years. This increased interest will be fueled by pro-labor stances taken by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) and its new General Counsel.

This post alerts employers to this trend and identifies key points employers should keep in mind.

1. Listen and Respond to Employee Grievances.

Employers should communicate with employees regularly and actively listen to employee grievances. Employee discontent grows when they feel ignored by the company. Consider mechanisms to invite employee input and recommendations. Often, employees feel listened to through small, personalized efforts—such as rewarding exceptional work or empathizing when employees face challenges in their personal lives. Amazon union organizers effectively rallied warehouse workers with home cooked meals. Employers should consider what non-traditional benefits their employees may appreciate to maintain or improve employee morale.

2. Avoid Hardball Tactics to Discourage Unionization.

Transferring, laying off, terminating, and assigning more difficult tasks because an employee has engaged in union activity is illegal. The NLRB is hyper-aware of retaliatory actions by employers and will pursue legal action if an employer unlawfully disciplines workers. Further, targeting union organizers can not only galvanize the organizers, but also distance employees even further from the employer. For example, it was reported that Amazon’s legal counsel described a union organizer as “not smart, or articulate” in an email that was mistakenly sent to over 1,000 people; this appeared to have largely helped the union. Oppose unionization efforts based on facts and the employer’s sincere views on what is best for its workplaces; avoid overly aggressive tactics that may backfire.

3. Do Not Underestimate the Power of Social Media.

In the age of smart phones and connectivity, negative news travels quickly. Aggrieved employees can gain widespread public support through TikTok, Twitter, and other social media platforms. In Amazon’s case, it was alerted to the support union organizers gained through TikTok. Employers should pay attention to social media campaigns to help identify employee needs and workplace deficiencies.

4. Monitor NLRB Opinions and Rules for Their Impact on Unionization Efforts.

The current administration has ushered in a new pro-labor era at the NLRB. The NLRB’s General Counsel has made it clear that she intends to shake-up longstanding policies to facilitate union organizing. Employers should pay attention to the opinions and policies issued by the NLRB during the current administration.

The Bottom Line

Employers should be aware of the unionization efforts nationwide and seek to better understand the needs of employees. The wave of unionization efforts demonstrates that employees are no longer content with the status quo and may seek changes in their work environments. Employers should maintain open lines of communication with employees and look for creative ways to improve employee morale.