I got the call from my assistant just as I was getting seated on a plane with my family heading to Dallas for Thanksgiving. "I thought you better know this," she said with pain in her voice, "OSHA is here." Three words that would chill any business owner. Because if an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector shows up unannounced it means someone in your company—or outside it—has complained to them about a possible safety problem. Often a union is trying to find some fuel for a campaign. Tearfully I kissed my wife and kids and got off the plane—United actually held the flight so I could exit—and headed back to our family-owned bag manufacturing factory to find out what was going on.
My family thought I should have just gone to Dallas. But my paranoia runs too deep. With the Obama Administration pushing the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would end elections and force companies to recognize a union if over half its employees signed cards requesting one, something called a "card check," I'm worried by anything that looks like possible organizing. And an OSHA visit fits the bill.
My concern isn't simply paranoia. Union campaigns are exhausting, deeply distracting events, and even though EFCA, as it has come to be known, promises to do away with campaigns, I'm willing to bet that the likely compromise will keep some sort of campaign in place, while making it easier for unions to organize. We've been through two campaigns, and know all about their ability to disrupt. About 13 years ago our company's employees voted to get rid of the union they'd had for nearly 30 years. But the six weeks before the vote were horrible. Union organizers, including one flown in from headquarters, descended on our company, pigeonholing employees on the plant floor. Production crashed, and our scrap rate tripled. Determined to stay neutral, we finally had to speak up once rumors began to spread that we'd close the plant if the union won.
Then three years later our company fought off an organizing drive by the Graphic Communications International Union. Truthfully, we hadn't been prepared for life without a union. We didn't build a human resources department, failed to craft a wage scale to guarantee timely increases, and didn't reach out enough to hear employee concerns. Again, the campaign hammered our business. Production fell 30 percent during the month and a half campaign as we conducted employee meetings explaining the downsides of belonging to a union, including paying dues and uncertainity about how contract negotiations might go. My siblings and I logged 20 hour days talking one-on-one with employees and leading meetings where I pointed out that unions had not saved local jobs at 10 factories that had recently closed. Employees spontaneously came forward to state their grievances, and while we could make no promises of change during an election period, we let them know we understood. The union mounted no counterattack. In the end, our employees petitioned the union to go away, and they heeded that call.
Why go through all this effort? Like most businesspeople, we don't want a union coming between us and our employees. We worry that a union might attempt to drive up wages higher than we can afford, or foist a health care plan on us more expensive than our thin margins can handle. Our past experience with a union taught us—and many of employees said as much—that too often the union protected employees with the lowest production or worst quality. We also know that some union contracts strictly limit the ability of managers to help run or setup machinery, something that would deeply hurt our company, where supervisor's often wield wrenches.
The mere thought of new labor law has inspired some companies to react. One business in my city has started to pay more attention to employee communication, publishing a monthly newsletter and holding meetings with shifts to explain how the company is doing. "We hope by opening lines of communication that folks will feel better about the company," the owner told me. "And, of course, less likely to embrace a union." Another business owner has gone so far to hire a firm to conduct an employee survey so he can identify and resolve any festering problems. Another, a local printer, has quietly begun moving more work to their Mexican facility.
Others are taking a more activist approach. One small business person wrote to his senator urging her to vote against the legislation, or at least amend it so that some sort of election period is preserved. "My argument is that the company should have at least some period to make its case," he says. Like many businesspeople, he worries that a union organizer might bully an employee into signing a card. I can't help but feel that prevention is the better route though. When, not if, a bill passes, I'd rather be a less susceptible target thanks to good employee relations.
Years ago that union drive certainly woke me up. Almost overnight we quickly overhauled our employee relations. We put a pay scale in place so that raises occurred in a timely manner and not just at the whim of a manager. We hired a human resource manager to handle day-to-day employee issues, tackling problems like reimbursements for health care costs. I began to meet regularly with employees, including periodic meals with each of our three shifts. These meetings often last two hours—or more—as employee's list ways they think the company could be improved, often offering ideas to boost productivity or quality.
I must confess, unlike many businesspeople, I do have a soft spot for the spirit of EFCA. While I can't agree with doing away with elections, I do accept that six weeks is far too long. If a company can't make its case in three weeks, then it likely deserves the union it gets. Six weeks gives employers too much time to wear employees down. Forcing workers to sit through meeting after meeting, bashing the union, hinting that the company might move or close if the union wins, probably is the corporate equivalent of the fear many businesspeople carry that union organizers might manhandle our employees into signing cards.
Despite my paranoia, in the end we figured the OSHA visit had nothing to do with a union. However, the process refocused my mind on our plant floor relations. So I hired a labor consultant to do an employee survey which turned up some issues we've begun to address, like putting an emphasis on internal promotion rather than outside hiring. We should do many of the things he turned up. All too often the day-to-day struggle of running a business muddles priorities. Now, with some union likely to target our company once the new labor law passes, I won't get distracted again.