Prepared for a World of Free Choice

By Mark Jr.

Dec. 29, 2009

While organized labor presses forward with its legislative and regulatory agenda in Washington, some companies are trying to nip unionization in the bud.

G&K Services, a uniform provider in Minneapolis, is training supervisors in best practices for labor relations, educating employees about the Employee Free Choice Act and listening to their opinions about workplace matters.

“We’re more proactive in talking about unions,” says David Dingee, G&K labor relations director. The company, which operates in the United States and Canada and employs 8,000, has a U.S. workforce that is 12 percent unionized.

It is trying to keep that level stable by “going the extra mile” to ensure positive employee relations, according to Dingee. The company conducts satisfaction surveys and allows workers to file complaints online.

“We have ramped up our education and communication given that EFCA is more likely to pass,” Dingee says. “We hear them out when they have concerns. It’s a lot of common-sense stuff.”

Dingee says that the company “has a decent relationship” with its existing unions. But it doesn’t want to add to their numbers, a reality the Employee Free Choice Act likely would create. Currently, 7 percent of the U.S. private sector is unionized.

“I’m concerned about the bureaucracy [unions] bring—endless meetings, arbitration, more meetings, work-rule changes that they would want to put in place that would take away employers’ flexibility … [to] respond quickly to customer needs,” Dingee says.

For retail companies, a focus on good employee relations comes naturally because their business depends on customer service, according to Katherine Lugar, executive vice president for public affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. Satisfied employees generate satisfied customers.

“While this has always been a principle, there’s a renewed focus on it,” Lugar says. “A happy workforce is the key to a union-free workforce.”

Most companies, however, are not inoculating against unions, according to several sources.

“The majority of employers are still in denial about the likelihood of significant pro-union legislation passing,” says Paul Myers, a partner at Strasburger & Price in Dallas.

But at the same time, more companies than ever are conducting town hall meetings with employees, taking stock of their mood via internal blogs and assessing pay levels.

“Many employers, where they never have before, are doing a better job of comparing their wages to the market or to organized employers,” Myers says.

The challenge is that the cost of surveying employees, analyzing pay levels and training managers can add up, especially during a recession.

“All of these things are expensive,” says John Toner, who is counsel at Seyfarth Shaw in Washington.


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