It’s All For the Good When Unions And Employers Take Negotiations Online

All’s fair in love and war between unions and employers, even online.

The fight for the hearts and minds of employees have gone from the picket lines and traditional unionization campaigns in the past to online forums, blogs, and video sites. Both companies and unions are getting in on the act, too.

While this isn’t the first time it has happened by any measure, there are indications that this could be a new trend. With declining membership, especially among those under 30, unions are looking to have better reach (and more protections for members they believe could be intimidated). Companies, who are facing increased pressures from both unions and a more labor-friendly NLRB, are looking for alternatives to communicate directly with those they cannot communicate with.

And it may just work out for everyone.

Bringing the fight to employees

The Los Angeles Times had a piece about Hyatt’s use of YouTube in the labor dispute among it’s Chicago properties. In it, Patrick Donnelly, General Manager of the Hyatt Regency Chicago said, “We have been listening to the union as they go on YouTube, go to our employees, to the newspaper and our civic leaders, and a lot of it has been misinformation. We wanted something that would give out the facts.”

The YouTube video below is what they produced, and it’s fairly stiff (as you can imagine from a hotel property):

Of course, the other side of the coin is that unions are using the same technology. The AFL-CIO blog said this about a recent blog campaign to unionize a metal container plant:

Over the course of the summer, the blog became an online meeting spot for the 164 workers, who knew plant management was monitoring the blog. But despite management’s efforts to hone in on pro-union workers, captive-audience meetings couldn’t refute what the workers were reading and commenting about on the blog.

This has led to both business and union leaders trading barbs over what should be and shouldn’t be posted on the web and some analysis about who is getting it right so far.

Eye-opening experience

Of course, transparency during the organization and negotiation stages of unionization has its downsides too. What was once done behind closed doors is now open to the public (both potential and current union members, employers, and the general public). That puts everyone’s actions on display for public scrutiny. While both employers and unions both believe this will bolster their cause, there should be some serious reservations.

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In showing these two pieces to friends outside of the HR space, most commented at the heavy handedness that both parties display in their respective public plays. For people unfamiliar with union negotiations, it can be an experience to see how they can move and progress, how long the process is, and what the potential for conflict really is.

Potential benefits

Whether this is a good or bad thing for unions and employers is anybody’s guess. It will likely play out on a case-by-case basis depending on the savvy of the organizers/employer and the case that is being made for or against unionization.

Surprisingly, the real winner in all of this is the employee. As is often the case, the ones who suffer most through bitter fights between employers and unions are the employees. This development could actually swing momentum and power back to those same employees who were often the forgotten about third-party when management and unions played turf games with their pay and benefits.

If a union is acting out of line, there is no reason that a company can’t figure out a way to communicate with their employees without violating the law to put pressure on the union. Similarly, if the company is acting out of line, there is no reason that support for more drastic measures couldn’t be figured out before ever taking a vote.

The biggest benefit for employees is that it could add a layer of accountability to unions and employers that simply does not exist right now, particularly during critical negotiations and leading up to union-wide votes. And while disinformation could certainly spread more quickly in an online world, it’s not like that is absent from current negotiations either.

Letting some digital transparency shine a light on the once seedy world of labor negotiations could be a win for employees, employers, and unions (however improbably that may sound).

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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