Union organizing campaigns can start in several different ways, however many find at their root a feeling among employees of unfair or unequal treatment by their employer. Sometimes the friction point is pay and benefits, other times it is entitlement to a benefit or advantage that others may receive in comparable workplaces.
Today, employees are working under an extraordinary amount of stress, with many concerned about the risk of illness, their employment law rights when it comes to layoffs or leaves of absence, and the security of their jobs and their ability to care for their families. This, in turn, has made them ripe targets for professional union organizers looking to increase membership and take advantage of, or exacerbate, the potential friction points that may develop between employees and management.
Anecdotally, certification applications are on the rise and we’ve seen unions targeting workplaces across multiple sectors over the past several months. Some of this activity has taken the form of general solicitation drives, with photocopied flyers containing generic messages left scattered in the workplace. Other clients have been subjected to targeted organizing drives, with the union holding employee meetings and filing certification applications with the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB).
The greatest tool employers have to address these unionization efforts is communication. Union organizing campaigns are often driven by employees’ perception of management decisions: today, that can include why certain health and safety protocols may (or may not) be in place, how wages and benefits compare to other workers, etc. To be clear: perception, rather than reality, is often what motivates these campaigns and so employers should not miss the chance to counter inaccurate perceptions and educate employees about the factors that motivate certain business decisions.
Luckily, outside of the construction sector, a union cannot be certified by the Ontario Labour Relations Board as the representative of employees, without first holding a vote conducted by the OLRB. This provides employers the opportunity to communicate with its employees prior to a final decision being made.
In order to ensure that the vote represents the true wishes of employees, it is vital for the employer to effectively communicate with employees prior to the vote and, often, during an organizing campaign. Although there are certain “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that impact on the employer’s right to free speech, employers should develop a comprehensive strategy to communicate quickly with employees and in the most effective way possible in the event of a certification application.
The need to prepare in advance is particularly true today, where certification votes are being held electronically. With traditional votes, those employees that were not scheduled to work on voting day were less likely to cast a ballot. However, staff at the OLRB have informed us that the turn-out rates for electronic votes have generally been higher, with up to 100% of eligible voters participating.
With so many employees potentially casting ballots, and those employees arguably more protected from the types of promises or peer pressure that can sometimes assist unions in their organizing efforts, having a communication plan to address employee concerns and to counter union messaging is more important than ever.