COVID-19: A new era for unionization?

June 2, 2020 | Sasha Segal

Now, perhaps more than ever, we are seeing unprecedented changes in the employment relationship.  Many businesses have been forced to take drastic measures to protect the financial stability of their operations in light of COVID-19.  While non-unionized employers react to concerns of constructive dismissal, is there an even greater concern lurking in the shadows?  We expect to see a surge in union organization activity as unions seek to leverage the workplace issues arising from COVID-19.  Employers should, therefore, be proactive in identifying signs that this may be happening in their workforce so that they can respond appropriately.

Why Unionization Now?

In the past few months, many non-unionized employees have experienced unilateral and substantial changes to their employment.  Employees have been placed on temporary layoff.  Other employees have experienced a substantial reduction in their compensation, at their employer’s behest.  Some employees are being forced to work a reduced work week; others are being told to use up their vacation time.  Employees are experiencing job and financial insecurity, which they may have never previously experienced.

Historically, unions have attracted membership by convincing individuals that a union will ensure that they earn better wages and benefits, which will be protected because any changes made by an employer must be negotiated with the union.  Unions have also capitalized on transient workforces that feature employees who want more certainty in their hours of work and limitations on their employer’s ability to layoff and terminate.  The changes made by many employers in response to COVID-19 are the very changes that unions have historically advertised as being preventable through unionization.

In addition, as a result of COVID-19, we have seen a drastic rise in the number of health and safety concerns raised by employees, including work refusals.  In this new “normal” where social distancing and protective personal equipment is needed, unions may capitalize on an employer’s alleged failure to adequately provide for same.  Employees who do not feel protected at work or are afraid to work due to COVID-19 may turn to unions in the hope of ensuring better workplace health and safety.

Another change in the workplace arising from COVID-19 is the ever-increasing need to accommodate employees, such as those who are immune-compromised, taking care of elderly parents or taking care of children due to school closures.  In this new era, an employer must be flexible and willing to accommodate.  Taking a rigid approach to such concerns risks employees seeking protection from a union.

Unions are being featured in the newspapers with regularity these days.  They are advocating for better protection of health workers.  They are advocating for better pay for essential workers.  Unions are updating their websites with information related to COVID-19 and sticking to their old adage that they are there to protect employees and provide job security – something which is valuable to employees in these times of uncertainty.

What Can An Employer Do?

Although there may be greater union organizing activity in this new COVID-19 era, unionization is not inevitable.  There are a number of strategies employers can adopt to help protect against a successful union organizing campaign:

  • Talk to your employees.  If your employees are working remotely, check in on them.  Showing you care can go a long way.
  • Continue to praise your employees and thank them for their dedication – if employees are taking a pay cut or working a reduced work week, tell them you appreciate it is a difficult time and you appreciate their efforts.
  • Conduct an anonymous employee satisfaction survey – you can glean immeasurably important feedback on employee morale in doing so.
  • If you have employees on layoff, do not forget about them.  Let them know you are thinking of them and understand this is a challenging time.
  • Keep your employees informed; transparency can be valuable in times of uncertainty.
  • Be understanding of a decline in work performance – many employees are likely juggling more responsibilities than usual (e.g. childcare and work responsibilities).  Before jumping to performance improvement plans, talk to your employees about the challenges they are facing.
  • Seriously consider accommodation requests – of course, this is always important, but especially so in an environment where employers need to demonstrate flexibility.
  • Be on the look-out for union organizing signs – are you receiving more employee complaints than usual? Are employees asking a lot of questions about benefits, etc.? If you are able to see your workforce, are you seeing more hushed conversations?
  • Work on your union campaign strategy so you can be ready if the time comes.

Conclusion

While we may see a rise in union organizing, all is not lost.  Employees, above all, want to feel protected and secure during these times of uncertainty.  If employers take heed of the above considerations, they will be well-positioned to successfully address any union organizing campaigns they may face in the coming months.

 

Miller Thomson is closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation to ensure that we provide our clients with appropriate support in this rapidly changing environment. For articles, information updates and firm developments, please visit our COVID-19 Resources page.

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