Five keys to winning a union certification campaign

This article was written by my friend, Phil Wilson of Labor Relations Institute (LRI) in the States.  I just edited it to work in Canada.

#1 – Know Yourself

This couldn’t be more simple: If you hope to win a union campaign and any potential a Labour Board election, you should conduct as many meetings with employees as possible.

Both union-sponsored research and our experience conclude conclusively that the odds of a company victory increase with each meeting held. If the union campaign continues long enough we urge up to 5 meetings and the effect of each meeting is dramatic. Even after the 5th meeting the chances of a company victory continue to improve, but at a much slower pace.

The group employee meeting is management’s most important weapon in a campaign. It gives the company the opportunity to tell its story. The company gets a chance to counter any union propaganda. Finally, it helps to reinforce the company’s leadership position and gives leaders a chance to build trust and familiarity.

The challenge for most companies is what to say during those 5 meetings (that is why our educational program, although variable, is designed around 5 presentations) and how to keep the attention of employees during that period of time. As you plan your campaign calendar make certain that you plan at least 5 meetings and identify how you plan to keep employees engaged during those 5 presentations. It literally means the difference between winning and losing a union election.

#2 – Know the Enemy

Once you have your 5 meetings set, your next goal is to figure out what to say during those meetings. Here is where campaign research can really pay off.

There are 4 key pieces of information that we believe make the biggest impact in the elections:

  1. Find out what you can about the union’s finances.  Unions have a very bad financial record. For this reason, unions in Canada have effectively lobbied government to keep their financial records hidden.  If you can provide a true financial picture about the union trying to organize your employees it can be powerful.   With some digging you can often find out how much officers and employees of the union are paid.  Our own research and relationships in the US gives us access to financial records for most North American unions and online sources can often find leaked financial reports.
  1. ULP Charges – ULP charges are the “smoking guns” that can really hurt a union. These are charges filed by union members against their union for failure to represent. These charges are often very harmful to the union because they illustrate vividly that the promises of representation aren’t always delivered after the election.
  1. Application and Election Results information – In some jurisdictions in Canada you can learn the application and election information about unions. This will tell you how many elections they’ve won (or lost) and, especially, whether they have been decertified (or voted out) by members in the past. If so, this is a powerful argument to use in the campaign – sometimes you can even find employees of this company who want to remain union-free.
  1. Collective agreements for this union – This can be a double-edged sword since sometimes the CA provides better conditions than employees currently enjoy. Either way it is great information to know because it gives you the ability to counter anticipated union claims with facts. Where the current conditions are more favourable than in the contract this provides more ammunition for the campaign.

If you take the time to collect these items at the beginning of your election campaign you will be in an excellent position to discredit union claims and win your election.

# 3 – How to Pick a Spokesperson

Two tactical decisions make the difference between winning and losing almost every union election.

The first is the definition of your unit – this determines who is eligible to vote in your election and is primarily in control of the Labour Board (although your labour lawyer or consultant can definitely be a difference-maker here). The other decision is totally in your control: identifying your chief spokesperson.

Here are the 4 factors you should use in deciding who should be your chief spokesperson:

  1. Credibility. Your chief spokesperson must be credible and trustworthy. Remember, the final voting decision is not whether a union is a good idea. It is who the employee most trusts with his or her future. Sometimes the local management can’t pull this off – they may be blamed for a lot of the issues that led to the campaign. If so, you may need to bring in a spokesperson from the corporate office or an outside consultant.
  1. Time. Depending on the size of your voting unit, your spokesperson is going to be conducting group employee meetings virtually full-time during the course of your election campaign. While some communication tools can lighten this load a bit, you still need to have someone there to answer questions and connect with voters. This is often a key stumbling point for larger companies.
  1. Delivery. The spokesperson also needs to have a comfort level with the information being delivered. Stumbling around and looking dumb is not a great way to inspire confidence and can even lead to unfair labour practices. These days language issues can also be a barrier. Credible delivery of the message and a cool confident demeanor makes all the difference.
  1. Emotionally Stable. These meetings can get heated. It is not uncommon for the union to instruct supporters to “bait” the spokesperson into losing their cool – which can then be turned into another campaign issue. It is important that the chief spokesperson be able to keep his or her emotions in check and keep control of a meeting.

We always encourage clients to attempt to find someone on-site who is able to play the role of chief spokesperson.  We believe this gives the campaign the most credibility and ensures that the post-campaign transition will be smooth. However, if the 4 factors listed above cannot be met with an on-site spokesperson you should definitely consider help from outside the location, especially a consultant with experience in union counter campaigns.

# 4 – Don’t Spend All Your Time in the Mud

It is tempting, we know it is. But you must resist if you plan on winning your counter campaign. Your mission: to stay out of the mud.

Union certification drives elections can get nasty. It is not uncommon for supporters on both sides to let emotions take over and to say or do things they regret later. Often these emotional moments become campaign issues or – worse – unfair labour practice charges.

You will probably face moments during a campaign where you will be presented with a rumor or piece of literature that the union is distributing that is false or twisted. Your initial reaction will be to respond quickly and publicly to the lie and to set the facts straight. This is not always the wrong reaction – but most of the time it is.

Here is the way to think about these issues. First, if you start reacting to every negative or inaccurate comment made by union supporters during the election campaign you will never get a chance to tell your story. You will always be reacting to theirs.

Second, the counter-reaction is often worse than the initial affront. Managers tend to significantly over-estimate the impact of negative rumors or handouts to potential voters. Employees usually dismiss these sorts of communications from either side (they usually recognize “campaign spin” for what it is).

Sometimes the counter-reaction, thought up at a highly emotional time, even results in an unfair labour practice charge. This becomes costly and can even create a worse campaign issue.

Finally, it destroys your credibility and gets you “off message.” Reacting to negative communications gets you down in the mud with the union. Instead of looking managerial and in control, you abdicate your leadership role for the street fight. Remember the ultimate goal: you need to convince employees that they can trust you more than the union. Slinging mud is not a great leadership trait.

This is not to say that you never say anything negative about unions – of course you do. However, it is best if you can keep your message mostly positive (this is why it is often a good idea to let structured communication or an outside consultant be the source of negative information about unions).

Focus on why you wish to continue working directly with your employees – talk about your future together. This allows you to take the high road, increase your credibility and gain trust. It will create a stark comparison with the union and make the choice on whether to sign a union card, or how to vote on election day an easy one.

Key 5 – Win With Your Supervisors

Winning your election is not your key concern – fixing your organization is.

Obviously you must win the campaign, and in the worst case, the election. There are several approaches to doing that. But if you look at the election as a symptom of an organization that is suffering, you already know your best hope for success: your front-line supervisors.

The truth is that all the listening, talking and consulting advice in the world only gets you so far. These are excellent vehicles for delivering the facts about unions to voters. This will get you well on your way to an election victory. This information will create a more educated understanding about unions and what they actually are. None of it however, will create trust in management.

The trust issue is a tricky one. Employees know that when the dust settles and the election is over, it will just be them and their supervisors once again. So it is vitally important that supervisors be given a critical role in the campaign.

Supervisors should not only be armed with flyers and truth information about unions. They must strongly and confidently communicate management’s position on unions. More important, they must communicate clearly and effectively why they personally prefer working directly with employees – and why they hope to continue to do that in the future.

You should look at your union campaign as an opportunity to improve the skills and abilities of your supervisors. They will have more opportunities to communicate with employees during the course of this election campaign than any other time in their career. It is a great proving ground for supervisors, and a great way to develop skills that can be used later to manage all sorts of tough issues.

If you look at the campaign as a development opportunity for your leadership group you will not only significantly improve your chances of winning your campaign, but also dramatically improve your supervisor group after the drive has concluded.

If the union’s campaign goes all the way to an application, and that ends with a successful vote against unionization, your group will be all the better equipped with the skills necessary to handle the tough task of transforming your labour relations environment.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” ~ Sun Tzu