When a union has you — and your employees — in its sight, you need to be ready to respond. Union leadership had months to prepare, to start engaging your employees, and to lay the groundwork for a unionization drive. Your business can’t afford to cobble together a strategy once a representation vote is imminent; you need to have a well-thought-out communications game plan. Here are a few tips to help craft your message:
Your labor team needs to communicate with employees during an organizing drive. But before they do, it’s vital to understand that the laws are explicit about what kind of communication is permissible. The team of people working to help keep your company union-free will be in charge of overseeing the message, understanding what is said, to whom and when. Beyond that, the labor team (even if it’s a group of leaders who normally have other primary responsibilities) must know what resources are available to them to help them communicate well. This includes attorneys, persuaders & consultants and those that provide video, web, and eLearning tools dedicated to keeping your company union-free.
So, do your research and know what’s legal as well as what’s recommended for your unique company and workforce ahead of time. Then, when you do have to manage a campaign to keep your company union-free, you’ll be well-prepared.
Next, remember that your supervisors are out every day interacting with employees… making them your best source of information about what’s going on with your workforce. Empower those in supervisory positions and promote positive employee relations by providing confidence-boosting training that helps them understand not only what cannot be said to employees – but what CAN and SHOULD be said during an organizing drive. Supervisors can state that the company is opposed to unionization, highlight the disadvantages of union membership, and point to misleading statements in union propaganda. Supervisors cannot prohibit employees from wearing union buttons or demand to know if they’ve signed a union authorization card. Provide them with the skills they need to conduct meetings with employees, recognize distribution of authorization cards, and implement other targeted communications.
Any team member that is expected to lead and to communicate with employees needs powerful leadership training to avoid mistakes – and Unfair Labor Practice charges – that could lead to fines and penalties for your company, and stress for your management team. This gives you time to prepare your response and make your case to your employees.
Why are your employees even considering joining a union in the first place? If you can answer that question, maybe you can prevent this problem altogether. In a union-free environment, one option is to empower your supervisors to engage employees directly and solicit feedback. If there are consistent grievances, you may have your answer. A more involved option is to organize a “town hall” with executives to speak to employees and even the families of employees directly. This is a slightly more risky idea, but if your leadership is prepared and willing, this can put a more human face on your company.
Finally, your internal processes can include regularly conducted employee engagement or union vulnerability assessments and surveys. When conducted by an outside company, these processes can help upper management gain insight, understanding, and the ability to take action on the right things.
The time to plan your communications strategy is before an organizing drive – not during. Whoever makes up your labor team – be it staff dedicated to this area or communications teams and senior management – needs to sit down and create templates for several key publications: a response to an organizing drive so employees immediately understand that the company is aware and listening, educational information about the effects of unionization and why the company wants to remain union-free, and what to say once an organizing drive has ended (and what it means for the business going forward).
This pre-prepped communications plan applies to company emails and press releases, but if your labor team wants to directly engage and refute union messaging, the best medium can be a website, dedicated to the organizing drive – and addressing only that topic. This kind of site can be created and kept in a “dark” state until it’s needed.
This is where your labor & communications teams earns their keep. Your internal and public communications need to be clear, consistent and positive. Your leadership needs to have the authority to control all management interactions with the media and ensure that no company leaders “wing it” and go off-message. That message needs to state the facts and avoid painting the dispute as bitter or unpleasant. Remember, all you need to communicate is where the company stands and that events are ongoing. Anything else is just noise.
Your message needs to be thoughtful, consistent and constructive. Every communication you release will be picked over by your employees, the union and, depending on the level of coverage, the media. What you say, and how you say it, will reveal a lot about how your organization is weathering the storm and how soon you can get back to business.