The drama is, seemingly, over but what can we learn from 2023’s union strikes?

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The drama is, seemingly, over but what can we learn from 2023’s union strikes?

As the New Year approaches, it prompts us to reflect on the year prior, examining the challenges, victories, and key takeaways to carry into the next one. Viewing this past year through a labor and employment lens, it was, certainly, one for the books –aptly titled, “the year of the union.”

The headlines dominating the news touted wins in major strikes involving the United Auto Workers, SAG-AFTRA and the Teamsters, to name only a few. Let’s take a look at the results of those strikes:

• Following six weeks of walkouts, the United Auto Workers secured a tentative agreement with Ford, resulting in a 25% wage increase, increased retirement benefits and more. Shortly thereafter, agreements were also reached with Stellantis and General Motors.

• SAG-AFTRA finalized a deal with studios, introducing protections for actors against artificial intelligence and a substantial pay increase after more than 100 days of walkouts.

• UPS also agreed to a wage increase with the Teamsters, representing more than 300,000 shipping workers, thus averting a strike that undoubtedly would have impacted the economy.

However, despite these apparent “wins,” did the unions genuinely succeed? What can employers learn from these recent events as we head into 2024?

 Did the UAW and other unions truly score big wins this year?

Yes and No. Certainly, the UAW’s new contracts with the Detroit Three are historic and provide many enhanced benefits to workers. Likewise, the SAG-AFTRA and Teamsters deals provide meaningful and long-desired gains for their members. But they came at costs, some of which are yet to be realized. Many UAW members who were forced to strike will never be made whole for the work they missed. Increased manufacturing costs resulting from the new contracts, will be passed down to consumers for quite some time. They’re also likely to contribute to lost jobs in the future. We can expect that many industries with large unionized workforces, namely automotive and other manufacturers, will see these recent union gains as further motivation to move towards heavier reliance on automation and AI to do work that is currently being performed by unionized workers. It could very well turn out that, in the long run, “the year of union” may be the start of a new wave of automated work.

Likewise, SAG-AFTRA caused most of the entertainment industry to grind to halt. It is arguable that the parties could have reached these deals without the unions resorting to strikes. Union leadership may feel vindicated, but their memberships may not feel the same – consider that the UAW contracts were ratified by workers at rates that were far from resounding.

The most important takeaway, though, is the expected heightened concern and vigilance from employers to legally protect against union organizing activity.

So, what can employers do to prevent their employees from jumping on the union bandwagon?

Union organizing efforts at nonunionized facilities typically start from within. Sure, unions actively try to infiltrate certain workforces, take for example the UAW’s recent declarations that it is increasing its efforts to organize Toyota and Tesla, but workers generally seek to organize when they experience personal dissatisfaction at work. Employees are far less inclined to consider forming a union when they feel respected and valued. This may seem obvious, but these issues are often overlooked – respect and recognition can be just as important as pay, benefits, and perks. Other workplace conditions are also important, such as the attitudes and dispositions of management, workplace safety, and open communication. The core principle of organizing is that workers feel they need to form a team to level the playing field with the more powerful management team. However, if your employees feel like they are on the same team as management, they will have less motivation to form a union.

Employers should, and most likely will be, more motived than ever to prevent organizing at their facilities and should consider taking stock of sources of employee dissatisfaction. Then they should implement new policies and procedures aimed at addressing those issues.

Though, when doing so, employers should also be careful!

Prevention of and responses to organizing efforts have many rules, regulations, and legal pitfalls. With unions focused on organizing and the National Labor Relations Board issuing new union-friendly guidance, employers should consult legal counsel on appropriate and legally permissible preventative measures. The experienced attorneys on McDonald Hopkins’ Labor and Employment team are ready to assist employers with all of their labor relations and other employment needs.

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