HR Management & Compliance

Coming Soon to a Store Near You: Union Organizing Campaign

After years of declining membership, unions are redoubling their efforts to sell their product (membership) to new customers. While they have long targeted grocery stores like Kroger and SuperValu, they are now moving into the so-called “new economy” by zeroing in on employers like Amazon and Starbucks.

By the Numbers

In 2021, the number of union workers across the country declined by 241,000. The total number of U.S. employees in unions dropped to 14 million, or a record low of 10.3% of all U.S. workers. In response, unions are turning to new businesses and warehouses such as Starbucks, Target, and Amazon to add members.

From October 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022, union representation petitions increased 57% over the previous six months. During the recent period, workers at more than 250 Starbucks locations filed petitions to form unions. While unions were approved in only 54 Starbucks stores, they still gained hundreds more dues-paying members. And a union successfully organized an Amazon warehouse for the first time in New York City, forming the Amazon Labor Union.

But union efforts go beyond coffee and Amazon. On May 11, 2022, workers at a Target store in Christiansburg, Virginia, filed an election petition, continuing the unions’ trend of focusing on commercial workers. Unionization efforts are popping up all over the country. A whopping 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest positive rating since the 1960s.

The More Things Change . . .

While unionization targets may be different, the main reasons for employees organizing a union remain the same: (1) workers’ perception of communication with management, (2) their belief that they’re being treated unfairly, (3) safety issues, and (4) pay and benefits.

Preventive Measures

Union avoidance efforts should be tailored to a specific workplace. But some recommendations remain consistent in every company:

Use open-door policies. Employers that discourage, punish, or ignore dialogue in the workplace are more likely to face concerted efforts from their workers. You should not only claim to have open-door policies but also be proactive in openly working through employees’ issues and encourage them to be part of the discussion.

Review employee handbooks. Employee handbooks must be carefully written to set forth the employer’s policies but also must  not encroach on workers’ rights including those under the National Labor Relations Act. In addition, the manuals can provide an opportunity for you to set a positive tone with employees.

While an off-the-shelf handbook may be legally compliant, you should make sure the manual conveys other important information to employees that are specific to your business. An annual review will help ensure the handbook is keeping up with changes in the business and the law.

Practice safety first. Many recent organizing campaigns started with employees’ concerns about the safety of working conditions. The worries may be exacerbated by workplaces failing to provide adequate safety precautions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. All employers should develop and follow detailed safety policies that protect their employees’ well-being.

Offer competitive pay, benefits. Nearly every unionization effort cites wages or benefits that are perceived to be noncompetitive or inadequate.

Final Note

Always be alert for signs of union organizing. As unions expand their efforts to other industries, companies that historically haven’t been organized may become targets. And the most important union avoidance tool is also good business. That is, you should work to maintain healthy relationships between employees and management.

Eric S. Clark, M. Scott Young, and Bret W. Vetter are attorneys with Thompson Hine LLP. You can reach them at Eric.Clark@ThompsonHine.comScott.Young@ThompsonHine.com, or Bret.Vetter@ThompsonHine.com.