U.S. study links lack of faith in company to unionization

Confidence in employer’s viability now top predictor of workers’ choice to join union

While the prevailing assumption may be that people join unions to make more money, secure better benefits or receive better treatment from a company, a recent U.S. survey has discovered there’s actually a much bigger driver: lack of confidence in the future of the company.

“I was quite surprised by this,” said Bruce Campbell, senior consultant at Modern Survey, the Minneapolis, Minn.-based firm that conducted the survey.

It asked 700 workers across the U.S. about the degree to which they were interested in being represented by a union. It also looked at the engagement levels of both unionized and non-unionized employees.

The results found non-unionized workers are more engaged (24% moderately engaged and 12% fully engaged) than their unionized peers (19% moderately engaged and 11% fully engaged).

The survey then went a step further and asked the non-unionized employees whether they would vote in favour of joining a union. Of those who would be willing to organize, more than half (51%) said they were disengaged, while only 8% of those who consider themselves fully engaged were interested.

Using correlation analysis, Modern Survey also created a “top 10” list of engagement items most associated with the desire to unionize. At the top of the list is confidence in the future of the company, followed by satisfaction with working for the firm, ability to recommend it as a place to work, how the company treats employees, recognition, benefits, pay, competitiveness of total compensation package, confidence in the company’s senior management and participation in key decisions.

“The take away for employers is that they need to be good corporate communicators,” said Campbell. “They have to be transparent about their future goals and direction. And, they need strong visibility. People are looking for strong senior leadership.”

Campbell has been conducting surveys on ‘union susceptibility’ for firms for the past 30 years. He uses eight dimensions, such as rate of pay, recognition, benefits, etc., to rank a company’s ‘union susceptibility.’ This is the first time he’s seen an association between confidence in a company’s future and the intent to organize.

“For most of my career, that index served me well for identifying organizations that would have discontent that could lead to a willingness to unionize,” he said. “It’s left me scratching my head.”

One reason may be recent recession, according to Campbell.

“There’s some realization that some of these other issues don’t matter if the organization is not there,” he said. “The results show it’s much more important to know how emotionally attached employees are to an organization.”

The unionization questions were part of a larger bi-annual study of employee engagement levels in the U.S. With recent legislation in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana proposing to limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights, and with public approval for unions declining, Campbell said it was time to look at how employee engagement relates to a desire to unionize.

He said while money, benefits and job security are still legitimate factors for unionization, they’re “less important” from an engagement point of view.

“Instilling confidence about the future would appear to be a highly effective union avoidance strategy,” he said. “When workers get nervous about the future of the company, they look more warmly at unions.”

Campbell plans to pursue the issue of confidence in a company’s future in the next survey in six months.

Of the survey respondents, 141 said they belonged to a labour union, while the remaining 559 worked in non-union roles. Only the non-union workers were asked about the likelihood of joining a union.

Latest stories