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Union or No Union?

A Third Point of View

Amazon is currently facing a Union campaign to organize a large Amazon unit.

Historically, employers have built the enterprises that create jobs and opportunity. Unions have worked to provide enlightenment and social legislation to make U.S. businesses better places to work. Ongoing legal actions, legislative proposals, and bluster all challenge the status quo that labor and management would both like to change.

But there is another point of view, as illustrated by these straightforward answers to often misunderstood (or misrepresented) aspects of the issue:

How does the labor-organizing process currently work? In general, the National Labor Relations Act provides that employees may petition their employers to be represented by a union. The employer may recognize the union at that point or require a secret ballot election to confirm that this is, in fact, the employees’ choice. Attempts to expedite this process include the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would have avoided any requirement for a secret ballot election.

What are the facts on election results? In 2019, there were 1059 representation elections conducted – a fourth year of steady decline. Of these: 70.0% were won by Unions; 30.0% were won by companies.

Do union and company organizations have anything in common? Each is focused on its own performance. In the organizing process, the primary interest of companies is to retain their flexibility to manage. The primary interest of unions is to increase their membership and dues income. Both, however, claim added altruistic motives.

Does a union or a company best protect job security? A common point of this debate centers on the creation of job security. In reality, job security is provided by customers who create the demand for a product or service, and are satisfied (or not) by the offering, its quality, delivery and related services.

Does unionization create an opportunity for increased pay? Unions can certainly bargain for their members’ improved wages and benefits. They must approach these opportunities prudently because the competitive business environment and a company’s viability (and thus its capacity to retain its employees) prevent employers from paying more than they can afford.

Where a labor agreement provides for extreme pay, benefits or work rules, is the union responsible? Turn to the signature page of any labor agreement and there are two signature sections – one for the employer and one for the union. Both agreed to any terms – extreme or otherwise.

Are unions the victims of their own successes? Over the years unions have helped to achieve, among other advances, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurances, and improvements in Social Security benefits, job safety and health legislation. These are impressive benefits that government now assures for every union and non-union employee. These substantive advances leave fewer improvements for unions to promise to members.

Are companies the victims of their own failures? When their work environments provide employees with limited challenges or opportunities, or little recognition and appreciation, or a less than welcoming environment, they open themselves to have these matters addressed by a union. To be sure, the employer who provides a less than competitive work environment has long been a union organizer’s best friend.

What are an employee’s options? Employees may have a positive or negative environment in which to work. In either case they can accept that environment, or work with or without a union to change it. Alternatively, as employees in the U.S. are not indentured to their employers, they can also pack up and move to a better circumstance, even in a weak economy.

Do currently recognized union bargaining units exist because the union drove them or because of the employer’s practices? That’s a mixed bag, but in either case, a bargaining unit exists because at one point that was the employees’ decision.

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The incessant union/no-union debate has been fueled largely by the mutual demonization of employers and unions (not to mention the occasional injection of politics). As these two big bulls lock horns over their self-interests, employees are too often left in the shadows as pawns of the ritual. So, during an organizing drive, who really watches out for employees? In the face of badgering by union organizers, managers and fellow employees, the consideration of facts and the anonymity of a secret ballot may be an employee’s only refuge.


Stan Davis is the Founding Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession. Stan is also a former union relations and human resources executive and a graduate of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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