Old idea, new style

The face of the union organizer has changed.

Not only have unions undergone an image makeover but, says Steven Nobil, a partner in the Cleveland-based law firm Millisor & Nobil Co. LPA, the new millennium brings a high-tech, updated corporate feel to the nearly 100-year-old organizations. With millions of dollars at stake, today’s unions operate as large businesses; some carry a net worth of more than $100 million.

So be warned. If your employees are unhappy over more than just wages and benefits, your company could be ripe for a union drive. Clever organizers know that when respect and dignity are at the root of disgruntled employees complaints, more often than not, a union drive will succeed.

Nobil asks one simple question: Would you recognize a union organizer if he or she walked through your company’s front door? And would a union drive succeed in your company?

Welcome to the 21st century organizer

The sterotype of cigar-smoking, table-pounding intimidators has been replaced by businesspeople who possess all the traits of the accomplished entrepreneur. They are well educated, tactful, patient, likeable, technologically savvy and empathetic. Long-range plans and carefully thought out budgets are also a part of today’s unions.

“For example, the steelworkers in 1999/2000 increased their dues in order to triple their organizing budget to a reported $40 million,” Nobil says. “During that same time frame, they added 34,000 new members.”

It’s a simple equation: New members equals new money.

Whether it is an existing employee or a union-paid representative, the person attempting to organize in your plant will know almost as much about your business as your most respected manager. The more that person knows, the greater the success rate. And with salaries based on commissions and incentives, success translates into dollars for the organizer.

The AFL-CIO is starting its recruitment efforts early, utilizing a nationwide program for part-time workers and college students. With its summer intern program, college students are given the opportunity to earn while they learn. While on salary with the union, these part-time workers infiltrate manufacturing companies and fine-tune organizing skills as they drive membership numbers and plant the union seed.

A smarter style

Blue-collar workers have evolved into tech-savvy computer junkies and weekend Wall Street traders, and union tactics have evolved with them, Nobil says. The greatest danger to business owners is not what the unions know about the company, but what the business managers do not know about the unions.

“One of the biggest things unions have learned is to go underground,” says Nobil.

Previously, a notice on the bulletin board or union cards in the lunchroom served as red flags for management. Unions recognized this and understand a battle is more easily won when the opposition is asleep. So organizers have replaced authorization cards and closely guarded petitions.

One by one, face to face, union organizers solicit employees, who then carry the movement deeper into the organization.

As the work force diversifies, unions have turned to representatives who fit in with the ethnicity of a company’s makeup. A company with a predominantly Hispanic employee base will get an Hispanic representative; a staff made up mostly of women will get a woman organizer. Sometimes, a retired employee is brought in to solicit the campaign effort.

Nobil says today’s tactics include spreading Web site names and sending out videos featuring employees loyal to the union movement. But, Nobil says, unions experience the greatest success from personal visits to employees’ homes.

“If they go to the homes of employees, they know they’re going to win about 75 percent of the time,” he says.

That conversion rate drops to less than 40 percent when no home visits are done.

Signs and symptoms

Just because a company has an unhappy work force does not mean the union virus is sure to follow. Nobil says complaints about disrespect rather than about wages and benefits are more likely to result in an organizing campaign.

He points out that organizations with fewer than 75 employees are typically good targets, with a unionization success rate of between 55 percent and 60 percent; work forces with 250 or more employees reject union drives approximately 80 percent of the time. Unions, he says, have learned to play the odds.

With a greater concentration of women in the work force, union organizers view the growing segment as “the future bread, butter and caviar,” Nobil says. Women comprise 40 percent of the nation’s organized work force. Backing specific issues such as rallying for flexible hours to meet the dual demand of family and career has proven successful in capturing support from women, he says.

One final thought, Nobil says: Unions are not immune to the normal pressures facing traditional business owners, and the old adage holds true — it takes money to make money. A 1984 poll about union support revealed that only 12 percent to 14 percent of Americans had a positive opinion about unionization. So in true union fashion, leaders poured more than $15 million into a “Union Yes” campaign.

The result? The next poll showed a dramatic leap in positive views about unions, to a whopping 60 percent.

How to reach: Millisor & Nobil Co., L.P.A., (440) 838-8800

Deborah Garofalo ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.

AFL-CIO website