Union-proof: How some employers avoid organized labour

Using a carrot rather than a stick can keep unions at bay

In the auto industry, the Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — are unionized but Toyota and Honda are not. In the retail sector, IKEA has one unionized location but no others. Until recently when the casino in Halifax was certified, only one of the 17 casinos operated by the Great Canadian Gaming Casino had a union.

There are many reasons why some companies remain union-free while others in the same sector, or at other locations, do not. Some have to do with company strategy, others with the way workers themselves perceive the union.

In some cases, the company fights a war of attrition, putting one road block after another in the union’s way in the hope organized labour will weaken first.

Several retail-sector giants, including Sears and Zellers, are unionized but Wal-Mart has avoided unionization for the most part. It has relentlessly argued its case against certification before labour boards in various provinces across Canada. In Saskatchewan, Wal-Mart challenged the constitutionality of the province’s labour laws all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and lost. In Quebec, Wal-Mart closed its store in Jonquiere after a unionization effort succeeded.

Hermann Schwind, Hari Das and Terry Wagar — the authors of Canadian Human Resource Management: A Strategic Approach — call this strategy “union oppression.” Using this method, employers may intimidate workers, threaten to close or move the plant or discriminate against union supporters.

John Bakaluk, a union organizer at a Wal-Mart store in Saskatchewan, said union sympathizers were given “the dirty jobs nobody wants,” in an article in the Aug. 2, 2004, issue of the Globe and Mail.

However, methods as brutal as these — which have the potential to run afoul of labour laws — aren’t always necessary. Other companies use a carrot rather than a stick to maintain union-free status. Schwind, Das and Wagar use the term “union substitution” to describe this strategy. According to them, a company “examines what unions bring to the employment relationship and then tries to introduce such features into the non-union workplace.”

This usually means comparable wages and benefits. Toyota, for example, has weathered the storm of unionization for more than 20 years at its Georgetown, Ky., plant. Union drives by the Canadian Auto Workers at the Toyota plant in Cambridge, Ont., in 2002 and again in 2005 also failed. In each of these plants, wages and benefits are seen as comparable to, or even better than, unionized operations.

Lloyd Field, author of Unions Are Not Inevitable!, said the difference between a group that unionizes and one that does not has to do with the employee’s perception of the “integrity, trust and credibility” of the employer.

Field’s theory has been influenced by Frederick Herzberg, whose book The Motivation to Work suggests workers are motivated by their enjoyment of the actual job they do, the recognition they receive for doing it and the sense of responsibility and achievement they are allowed to have at work.

“The greater a perception of the company’s integrity and the more training and care of the employee it provides for them when doing their jobs, then the less likely it is that employees will form a union,” Fields said, adding that successful companies that know how to keep customers loyal can apply the same strategies to keep workplaces union-free.

The fact union-free companies are often located in semi-rural areas may help as well. Rural workforces are generally not used to high, union-bargained wages and are perceived to have a work ethic derived from long hours making a living on the farm. Excessive overtime, seen as a pivotal issue by the CAW organizers in 2005, obviously did not concern Toyota’s workers enough to convince them to vote for union representation. Many employees use their job at the car plant to subsidize their farming operation and are unlikely to want to jeopardize either situation by risking a work stoppage.

Some labour relations experts say there are companies that screen employees during the hiring process to eliminate those sympathetic to unions, but many companies deny this is the case. However, more flexible management and the idea of working as a team have become popular in the last decade. Management looks for job candidates who are amenable to the non-union culture and take the time to interview them thoroughly before hiring.

If being part of a team is important and if self-supervised teams are encouraged to make decisions and problem-solve, there is both a sense of satisfaction and also a subtle pressure to conform to how other team members feel.

Training programs focusing on a company’s goals and workers’ roles in co-operating with one another to fulfil these, along with flexible (or no) job classifications, help break down the conventional barriers between management and workers and leave little room for unions. In fact, many workers, especially younger workers and women, are leery of the confrontational, adversarial approach characteristic of union bargaining. This may be especially true of workers in small towns where everyone knows each other.

Another reason for the failure of unions to get a foothold in newer plants may be the attitude of workers themselves. Read any blog about whether or not unions are a good thing and chances are there will be many workers opposed to unions whose leaders, they assert, make hay for themselves at the expense of the rank and file. Others believe unions don’t bargain for the right things for the workers they represent. One blogger noted, “I think labour unions need to (shift their) focus off higher wages… and onto negotiating for skills training and co-operative experiences for young workers.”

Finally, there is also a sense of rugged individualism among some workers. Earlier this year, Paul Harrison — a licensed industrial mechanic laid off from a GM plant in Windsor, Ont., after 23 years — applied for a job with Toyota. In a May 7, 2007, article in the Windsor Star, Harrison said: “If I can’t hold onto my job without a union backing me, then I have no business working.”

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information visit www.hrreporter.com/clv.

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