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Unions Targeting Small Employers

The nation’s labor unions are reacting to shrinking overall membership by attempting to organize smaller employers. In 2016, public sector and private industry union membership declined by nearly 120,000 members, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, unions won 72% of all representation elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016. That rose to 74% when the election involved a unit of 49 workers or smaller.

“I’ve had employers say to me that they don’t need to worry about unions because they are ‘too small’ for unions to worry about,” says Jeffrey Stewart, an attorney with the law firm of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus. “Well, I have some bad news about that.”

In 2016, the median size of bargaining units sought in union representation petitions was just 22 people. That means that half of all union elections had sought to represent fewer than 22 people. “Too small is no longer applicable,” Stewart says.

One reason: NLRB approval of micro-unions, made up of smaller numbers of a facility’s total workforce. Trump appointees are expected to overturn the decision, but it’s had a real impact.

Smaller employers also are more vulnerable to organizing. A bargaining unit of just 10 people needs only three to be interested in a union to file an election petition. From there, the union need only convince a few more people to vote for it.

Employers of all sizes need to be aware of the signs of union organizing and how to respond, Stewart says. There are very clear prohibitions on some employer behavior, such as questioning employees about whether they support the union, that can lead to unfair labor practice charges.

Because it is normally a first-line supervisor who engages in such behavior — sometimes before upper management is even aware of any union organizing – he says it is imperative to ensure that your managers and supervisors are trained in the do’s and don’ts in this area.

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