Since 1983, the percentage of private sector employees represented by a union has decreased from 16.5% of the workforce to 6.9%. In those 30 years, union leaders have looked for answers through a self-examination which has returned a litany of results: blaming and attacking each other, launching corporate campaigns, creating strategies around a radically new direction of political influence, and then back to an organizing and striking focus. Despite all the efforts and gnashing of teeth, no significant union membership growth resulted, and instead even produced a political backlash culminating in Michigan becoming a “right to work state.”
Why are Unions Failing?
Even with hundreds of millions of dollars spent from members’ dues, labor unions have experienced one failed strategy after another. There are a number of possible variables contributing to the failure, but one thing remains constant over the same 30 year period - an ever-improving employee relations workplace environment led by Human Resource leaders across the country. Simply put, employees today are managed and led better than they were 30 years ago.
Findings from the INTEGRATED Healthcare Strategies Employee Engagement Surveys show that most healthcare employees believe they have a meaningful voice in the workplace, they are paid competitively, they are treated with dignity and respect, and they have trust in their leadership team. Even job security concerns are low, both from indiscriminate employment action and staff reductions. With these type of results dominating the landscape in healthcare, there is little opportunity for union leaders and organizers to exploit employee discontent.
What are Union Leaders to Do?
It is in a labor union’s nature to be adversarial and to attack. A nature that has resulted from the federal labor law that governs and manages union relations. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was enacted in 1935, and unfortunately cemented the workplace relationship of the early industrial period. Over 80 years ago, lawmakers never thought that the workplace would become more of a partnership and that an industrial-based workplace would be replaced by a service-based economy. Congress members from 1935 would be amazed at the incredibly positive workplace relationships that now exist (especially compared to 1935).
Union leaders are faced with quite a dilemma. Employees generally have a positive view of their workplace and a good relationship with leadership. Further afflicting their cause, union leaders have still not figured out how to make their product more attractive to this new generation of workers.
The solution is as simple as it is beguiling. If you cannot convince a majority of employees to vote for a union, simply change the rules so that the union only needs a small number of disgruntled employees to bring in the union. But, this cannot possibly happen in a democracy, right?
The proposed regulatory changes for how unions initially get into a workplace are designed to create such a world. The changes range from a very short education campaign period which results in the majority of employees being uniformed and not motivated to even vote, to creating small voting units in non-acute care settings. The unions have thrown any political nicety aside and are using their current influence to simply change the playing field from a level surface, to one heavily tilted to their side.
Our research shows that 6% to 10% of the workforce is inherently negative. This group of employees is naturally skeptical to the point of paranoia, and believe the organization and its leaders are acting badly no matter how positive the news. Unions have always marshaled this group of employees to be their internal organizers and usually to become union stewards and negotiators if the union wins the election. Fortunately, in most healthcare workplaces, the negative voice of this small number of employees is usually drowned out by the positive attitude of the majority. As long as an employer created an overall positive workplace, the threat of a successful union organizing attempt was minimal.
A Round of Applause for the Human Resource Professionals
The constantly evolving Human Resources teams have helped lead the way in creating and maintaining a workplace where most employees have a positive outlook, and trust that the organization has their best interests in mind. This incredible transition in the last 30 years has pushed union representation to become almost negligible in the modern workplace. Unfortunately, unions have possibly come up with a successful strategy in circumventing all of HR’s hard work.
Human Resource leaders know the issues. How do you gain the attention of healthcare executives to a problem that does not yet exist? With all the pressures of the changing healthcare environment facing healthcare leaders, directing any of their precious leadership focus time to prepare for a potential union strategy onslaught is no small feat. It does not help that predictions over the last five years that the union “sky is falling” have not come to fruition. So, it will probably take a major event before the issue gets attention. The year 2013 appears to be the time when a major event may occur at a number of hospitals across the nation.
The message here is that healthcare organizations need to prepare now so they are in the best shape to stand up against their labor union adversaries when they attack, and not wait until it is too late.