Expect a Resurgence of Unions Post-pandemic

By Hedley Lawson and Victor Deksnys

Everyone wants to know what the world and the world of business will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic abates. Numerous articles have appeared in business publications such as The Atlantic (May  6, 2020), Forbes (April 15, 2020), and The Economist (April 2, 2020) to boldly suggest that business and life will be different for the foreseeable future—and possibly even for good.

Meanwhile, for the past three decades, union membership has consistently declined with membership across the United States now below 11 percent, down from more than 20 percent in 1984. Some boards and executive leaders have confidently moved forward believing that unions are dead and their companies will not be targets of union organizing. Consequently, the topic does not often come up in boardrooms, executive meetings, or strategic planning sessions. Why? Most likely it is because unions are “out of sight, out of mind.”

During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, employee actions and unionization were relatively quiet, even during the recession beginning in 2008. Not so subtly, however, employee protests and walk-outs against management have materialized at iconic brands such as Amazon.com, Google, Whole Foods Market, Tesla, Walmart, Target Corp., and Instacart. These vocal and public actions speak out against the lack of leadership attention to topics such as sexual assault, pay inequity and the racial pay gap, required arbitration in employment agreements, workplace safety, diversity and inclusion, company culture, and other issues important to employees.

Public reaction to such worker actions has been sympathetic, especially among younger generations. Additionally, during the Democratic presidential primaries, these generations largely favored Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. His progressive message resonated as it focused on equality and health care for all, uplifting diversity, taxing the wealthy to provide for poorer Americans, workplace safety, and related initiatives. While Sanders ultimately withdrew from the Democratic primaries, his message lives on in the minds of younger generations. They believe in the right to their personal safety and the government’s role in alleviating the struggle they face living in expensive areas of the country.

In conveying their message publicly, many millennials and other young generational employees believe they, specifically, have been adversely affected by this pandemic, including with regards to workplace safety, job losses, pay cuts, and losses of or reductions in benefits. While employment conditions may have been excellent prior to the pandemic, with free or low-cost cafeterias, gyms, child care, and many other benefits, these are now gone when working from home or not working at all. These generations’ vocal and public calls to company leadership revolve around taking affirmative, active, engaging, and sustained action in their interest. And if corporate leadership does not, enter the possible resurgence of union activity.

While some boards of publicly listed and privately held companies may have discussed possible unionization or remaining union-free, discussion is only talk—and many companies have not invested appropriately in corporate culture to ensure that employees feel supported from within. Indeed, in a Duke University survey, researchers queried more than 1,000 senior executives about corporate culture. Surprisingly, 69 percent said their firms under-invest in culture, only 16 percent believe their firm’s culture is where it needs to be, and 92 percent said improving corporate culture would increase their company’s value.What can boards do to engage with management to create and sustain a culture that benefits the company, its shareholders or owners, and employees alike? Here are four actionable, agile, and transformational recommendations:

  1. Place culture at the top of the strategic objectives list. Understand, accept, and agree that without a strong, open, honest, transparent, vibrant, collegial, safe, diverse, respectful culture, companies cannot achieve organizational excellence, successful operational execution, customer loyalty, sustainability, and financial objectives.
  2. Ensure every executive leadership and business function has a seat at the table. While this recommendation saw improvement over the past decade, the expertise of the people at the table needs to be assessed frequently. Take a look, for example, at the July/August 2015 issue of NACD Directorship magazine which published an article titled, “The HR Threat to Board Effectiveness.” Just because a business function is represented at the table does not mean that the person representing the function possesses the knowledge, know-how, and expertise across the business to remain effective.
  3. Involve, listen, and then act. Too often, companies make decisions at the top and then cascade the decisions downward to lower-level teams. In doing so, the members of the teams may often ponder, “Why didn’t they ask for our input and ideas before making another decision that affects us?” If a board and an executive leadership team have concluded that change and transformation are required in the company, begin the conversation with as many team members as possible by asking the question, “How can we best solve this problem?” Consider forming cross-functional teams to work collaboratively on actionable, thoughtful solutions. Once these decisions are approved by senior leadership and, if necessary, the board, and with a member of the management team as an involved sponsor, give those team members the responsibility to act. And when success comes, recognize and praise them for their achievements.
  4. Remember: not just once, but always. Boards and senior executive leadership acting on these recommendations need to remember that these are not one-time events. Transformational change needs to be sustainable change. Thoughtful planning which involves the collective organizational team must be consistent, thoughtful, and open to continuous improvement and necessary change. Involve everyone, not just decision-makers. Let teams take responsibility for offering ideas and acting on their suggestions.

Taking these recommendations into account can provide greater assurance that your teams are an engaged part of your company culture and sustainable business successes. And with your team successes, there will be far fewer team members taking their message to the public, to the press, and to the unions.

Hedley Lawson is the global managing partner of and Victor Deksnys is an alliance partner with Aligned Growth Partners, LLC.

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