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The Dynamics of Union and Employer Relations in the US (Part II)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

This is the second article in a 10-part series on the dynamics of union and employer relations in the United States.

In Part I of this series, we reviewed union philosophies and structures, membership trends, and the power balance in new campaigns to unionize. Now we will look at factors that motivate employees to unionize and ways that employers can monitor their employee perceptions.

Start a management degree at American Public University.

In non-union environments, there are many factors that might ultimately lead to a unionization effort, employee attitudes being among the most significant. Some straightforward employee concerns include wages, working conditions and scheduling complaints such as the unequal distribution of overtime work.

However, these concerns are often facades masking far more complex issues. A study by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville found that relationships between supervisors and subordinates are among the most important factors of job satisfaction and performance.

Key dynamics of supervisor-subordinate relationships include respect, appreciation, recognition and consideration. So to understand the root causes of organized labor, we should examine how differences in these variables can alter perspectives.

Workplace Respect Comprises a Variety of Elements, Including Appreciation

Respect is a complicated idea. It comprises a variety of elements, including appreciation, recognition, voice and integrity. However, the importance of ensuring that employees feel respected in the workplace should not be underestimated. Employees in non-union environments tend to begin talks about unionizing when they feel their leaders do not respect them.

Employees who feel appreciated are likely to feel respected, all other things being equal. Appreciation is derived from a genuine impression that leaders recognize, value and are grateful for their employees’ efforts.

When we do not feel appreciated, we tend consequently to feel that we are being taken advantage of for the efforts we make; this state of mind culminates in a feeling of disrespect. Employees who do not feel appreciated or recognized will often eventually either resign or look elsewhere for an advocate to seek justice on their behalf. Such advocacy is the raison d’etre of unions.

Another component related to employee perceptions of respect is the extent to which they feel they have meaningful voices within their organizations. This need for a voice may involve consultation with employee peer-nominated leadership groups before key decisions are made; a formal or informal voting process for such decisions; or, at the very least, a kind of notice and comment procedure that gives employees a platform to state their opinions in support or opposition of a particular employer action. Without a voice in organizational affairs, employees are also likely to feel disrespected and, again, may cause them to look elsewhere for vindication.

Beginning in the 1970s, Businesses Began to Push Back against Unionization

Most American industries conceded union legitimacy during the mid-twentieth century as businesses flourished in the decades immediately following World War II. However, beginning in the 1970s, businesses began to push back against unionization to stop further encroachment and even to destroy the power of unions that were already in place. As discussed in another article series, the motivations for this change were largely economic and political, and these efforts have largely been successful.

Defeating unions already entrenched in organizations is difficult. So can non-unionized employers act promptly to prevent unions from invading a workplace? Can they develop and implement strategies to ensure unionization attempts are unsuccessful?

The short answer is: Yes, most of the time. However, the first step requires a very precise understanding of employee dispositions through careful and frequent measurement.

The Effectiveness of Surveys Depends on the Level of Trust between Employer and Employee

Organizations will often hire outside consultants to assist with union avoidance unless the organization has internal talent that can do the job. Indeed, many companies will employ surveys to gauge employee attitudes. These surveys can assist organizational leaders to understand potential areas within the company where employees are dissatisfied with working conditions or salaries.

While this information is useful, organizations must determine the level of trust between employer and employee. This information will provide an indication as to whether or not employees will provide honest responses to a satisfaction survey and whether they have already begun seeking union assistance.

There are several important considerations when designing and administering employee attitude surveys. The first is the fine balance between desire for relevant information and the need to protect respondents’ privacy to maximize the validity of the results.

Imagine that you are an employer who is concerned about potential union efforts. In employee attitude surveys, you’d obviously love to know the author of each individual survey response to identify trends by demographics and organizational particulars.

However, if employees are required to disclose their names or other identifying information when completing surveys, they will be far less likely to be honest and forthcoming with their true feelings about their jobs.

It is certainly not illegal to require employees to complete surveys as part of their duties. It isn’t even illegal to require that employees put their names on such surveys.

However, the dynamic at issue here is honesty and the consequential value of the information obtained through these efforts. If you’re going to spend the time and money to develop and administer such a survey, you want it to yield more than just employees telling you what they think you want to hear.

Modality Also Affects the Effectiveness of Employee Surveys

Another factor with such survey efforts is response modality. Should such surveys be administered by computer or on paper? Computers allow for expeditious processing and analyzing of information.

But survey administrators should also be considerate of the fact that even today there are workers who are not entirely computer-literate. So if a survey response requires anything beyond pointing and clicking, this might be an obstacle to valid results. Advances in technologies, such as touchscreen displays that make computer interfaces simpler and more user-friendly, help to alleviate these problems.

In addition, survey administrators should be aware of the fact that, even among survey respondents who are computer-literate, many do not trust the purported confidentiality or anonymity of using these devices for sharing feedback. Given that many computers today come equipped with built-in microphones and cameras, some worry that their use, which is purported to be private, is actually not.

An Employer with a Large ESL Workforce Should Translate Survey Questions

Yet another survey challenge lies in language barriers. When an employer manages a workforce with a large English as a Second Language (ESL) population, that employer should attempt to have their surveys questions translated into the dominant languages of the workers so that they can be easily read and understood.

Employer Survey Question Types Should Also Be Considered

Finally, survey administrators need to consider the types of questions to be asked and how they are structured to maximize the usefulness of the information collected. Multiple choice and scale-based questions are great for trend analysis because their limited response options allow for groupings and weights.

However, these types of questions neglect unique feedback that respondents might otherwise be moved to share if questions were open-ended. The caveat with open-ended questions, though, is that the analysis must be conducted qualitatively, and as such any key conclusions may be less obvious.

In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss approaches that employers can legally adopt for actively deterring union encroachment.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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