Category Archives: National Labor Relations Board

NLRB: Grad Students Are Employees

In a 3-1 decision, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate students working as research and teaching assistants at Columbia University are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

As the Washington Post reports, the ruling overturns a 2004 Brown University decision, in which the NLRB said graduate students engaging in collective bargaining “would undermine the nature and purpose of graduate education.”

The decision, which clears the way for these grad students to join or form unions, opens the door “to the full panoply of rights provided under collective bargains, and the effect will change the relationship between private sector universities and their students,” Joseph Ambush, a Boston-based attorney who filed the brief on behalf of the schools involved in this case (and who represented Brown in 2004), told the Post.

Philip Miscimarra, who offered the lone dissenting opinion in the Columbia case, voiced concerns that allowing students to collectively bargain could “wreak havoc” on their education, given the potential for strikes and lockouts, according to the paper.

That’s not all the decision could do.

Earning recognition as employees means that grad students working in teaching or research capacities “can bargain for larger stipends and better health coverage, especially if they have children,” according to the Post. “It also means they can get basic protections, such as unpaid leave.”

The ruling “could be huge,” says Laura Hung, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at American University. Hung, now working as an adjunct professor, told the Post that she’s making roughly the same salary (around $19,000) that she earned as a teaching and research assistant in her most recent academic year.

“The vast majority of my colleagues are swimming in student debt,” notes Hung, adding that her wages are “barely enough” to cover her $1,000 rent each month, and “certainly not enough” to pay for the health insurance offered by the university.

“The way things are right now obligates students to take out large amounts of debt to eat and live,” continues Hung. “There are students who are not going to find jobs that pay enough to pay that back.”

This struggle is real among young workers outside of academia as well. Pay attention, employers.

As HRE notes in an upcoming feature in our Sept. 2 print issue, the number of recent grads buckling under the weight of massive student loan debt is only growing. Recent data from the Plan Sponsor Council of America, for instance, finds 69 percent of students graduating college in 2011 and 2012 borrowed money to finance their educations, compared to 49 percent of 1992 and 1993 college graduates.

Some employers are recognizing this trend, and are responding. As we report in the aforementioned Sept. 2 piece, for example, Nvidia Corp. is helping its youngest workers start off their careers on the right financial foot.

Designed to help employees repay student loans up to $30,000, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based technology company’s Student Loan Repayment program is open to all full- or part-time employees who have graduated within the past three years and are working 20 or more hours per week and provides monthly reimbursement up to $500 or the worker’s monthly payment amount, whichever is less.

Applicable to various types of loans—Federal Perkins loans, private student loans and subsidized Stafford loans, for instance—the repayment program also helps employees who go back to school for an advanced degree.

Beau Davidson, vice president of human resources at Nvidia, describes the effort as a “bridge program” geared toward helping recent grads transition into the working world.

“This kind of assistance might help them get started in an apartment, put a down payment on a car, and get themselves situated and ready to work,” says Davidson. “It’s one less stressor to worry about.”

Orchestras Out of Tune with NLRB

dv1970026Anyone who’s been watching employment law the last few years knows that the National Labor Relations Board has been steadily expanding the boundaries of union activity. One realm where this is happening is a place many probably don’t see as a workplace at all: the stage of a symphony hall.

In a pair of recent decisions, the NLRB has ruled that orchestra musicians are employees entitled to unionize even if they perform just a few times a year in concerts that last only a couple of hours. Even though they are free to take a gig or not. Even though they use their own instruments.

We’ll get to the reasoning in a minute. But first, a disclosure: I’m an amateur French horn player and in my college days made a meager living by playing with semi-professional orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wasn’t much money — a few hundred dollars for several rehearsals and a concert or two — but the gigs added up and my standard of living was low at the time. I was, for several years, a card-carrying member of the American Federation of Musicians Local No.6, AFL-CIO.

Big professional orchestras across the country — anything from the New York Philharmonic, say, to the San Antonio Symphony in Texas — hire musicians as full-time employees with contracts that provide often healthy six-figure salaries with benefits. But even many smaller orchestras, with far smaller budgets, commonly have union contracts as well — even if their musicians make peanuts.

While performing is typically a hobby for musicians in a small-city orchestra, some players can make a living by cobbling together work with many local orchestras and teaching. Plus, there’s a tradition of unionization in live music that dates back to the days before television. So it’s more complicated than you might think.

While unionization is a given in many markets, some orchestras have resisted it. But they’re not getting a sympathetic hearing from the NLRB under the current administration.

In April the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a board ruling against the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, based in south-central Pennsylvania. The board ruling held that the orchestra’s musicians were not independent contractors, but employees entitled to union representation. With similar reasoning, an NLRB regional director in late July ruled in favor of musicians who perform with a Boston theater company.

Those cases are aren’t alone. Along with its original ruling in the Lancaster case in 2011, for example, the NLRB issued similar findings for orchestras in Cape Cod, Mass. and Plano, Texas.

The board majority’s reasoning sheds an interesting light on the usual test of whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee. In the 2011 Lancaster ruling, the board noted that the musicians have a choice whether to perform on a given concert set or not, which weighs in favor of independent contractor status.

But that is outweighed, the board majority found, by other factors favoring employee status. The musicians have no control over their working conditions — from what they wear to how they behave on stage — and in many other respects are subject to strict control by the conductor.

In a minority opinion, dissenting then-member Mark Hayes weighed the balance differently. He argued that many factors, including the musicians’ ability to skip a concert set to take other work or for any other reason, made them independent contractors.

Another issue is hovering quietly in the background: Most small-city orchestras are barely able to make ends meet. I remember a conversation with a conductor backstage before a performance one night. All it would take for the orchestra to go bankrupt, she said, would be for the musicians to decide they wanted just a little more money.

GOP Platform: An HR Cheat Sheet

ThinkstockPhotos-504283950The Republican Party platform approved on Monday hasn’t exactly drawn much attention, what with all the other interesting things happening at the GOP convention in Cleveland. But a look at HR-related provisions in the document gives us a window into how the party is evolving.

Some provisions are largely the same as in the party’s 2012 document. Both platforms, for example, call for portability in health plans and pensions.

But others have changed. Some reflect changing economic conditions. Others reflect changing politics — in particular, the rise of nominee Donald Trump, whose positions don’t always align with the party’s traditional views.

Here’s a quick rundown of policy positions of interest to HR leaders.

International trade: The 2016 platform repeats a 2012 pledge to pursue “a worldwide multilateral agreement among nations committed to the principles of open markets.”

“We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first. When trade agreements have been carefully negotiated with friendly democracies, they have resulted in millions of new jobs here at home supported by our exports. “

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Reflecting nominee Donald Trump’s opposition, however, the platform does not explicitly mention the proposed trade deal, which the party supported in 2012. It only hints at a go-slow approach.

“[The] American people demand transparency, full disclosure, protection of our national sovereignty, and tough negotiation on the part of those who are supposed to advance the interests of U.S. workers. Significant trade agreements should not be rushed or undertaken in a Lame Duck Congress. “

Workforce development:  With unemployment rates down from four years ago, the 2016 platform drops a proposal backed by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney to replace dozens of retraining programs with state block grants. It does keep language suggesting a greater role for private worker training, however.

“We need new systems of learning to compete with traditional four-year schools: Technical institutions, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector … a four-year degree from a brick-and-mortar institution is not the only path toward a prosperous and fulfilling career. “

Regulatory activism: The 2016 platform adds language criticizing the Obama administration’s activist approach to labor issues on the regulatory front.

“They are wielding provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act from the 1930s, designed to fit a manufacturing workplace, to deny flexibility to both employers and employees.”

Targeting NLRB: In particular, the 2016 platform steps up criticism of the National Labor Relations Board. Among policies targeted is the board’s support  of project labor agreements, which guarantee union wages. The platform also calls for repealing the Davis-Bacon Act, which has a similar effect on federal projects.

“Their patronizing and controlling approach leaves workers in a form of peonage to the NLRB. We intend to restore fairness and common sense to that agency. “

Labor unions: This year’s platform reiterates language from 2012 that supports laws allowing workers to opt out of union membership or dues requirements, even if they are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement.

“We support the right of states to enact Right-to-Work laws and call for a national law to protect the economic liberty of the modern workforce.”

Minimum wage: Reflecting new potency of the issue, the 2016 platform add language — albeit briefly — opposing any change in the federal minimum wage.

“Minimum wage is an issue that should be handled at the state and local level.”

NLRB May Raise Bar For Employers to Oust Unions

Companies seeking to oust a union that’s no longer supported by most workers could soon face a new obstacle.

Currently an employer may stop dealing with a union when a contract comes up for renewal. Management just needs objective evidence – typically a petition – that a majority of workers no longer support it. But the NLRB’s top lawyer wants to raise the bar companies must cross to withdraw recognition.

In a May 9 memo, National Labor Relations Board general counsel Richard F. Griffin Jr. instructs the agency’s regional directors to raise a new argument when companies unilaterally withdraw union recognition. He believes employers should first seek a formal decertification election — and continue to deal with the union until winning the ballot battle.

In the memo, GBallot-boxriffin contends this would be better for companies by eliminating uncertainty and lessening delay and litigation.

The current board law “has created peril for employers in determining whether there has been an actual loss of majority support for the incumbent union, has resulted in years of litigation over difficult evidentiary issues, and in a number of cases has delayed employees’ ability to effectuate their choice as to representation.”

The new standard, he contends, “will benefit employers, employees, and unions alike by fairly and efficiently determining whether a majority representative has lost majority support.”

But management-side labor lawyers generally see this as a move to strengthen the hand of unions by forcing companies to continue bargaining with a union that may no longer have much support.

And the NLRB could go along with Griffin, says one expert.

As long as three of the five board members are Obama appointees, “I think there is probably a good chance … the board would be receptive to the general counsel’s argument here,” said labor attorney Steven M. Swirsky, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker & Green in New York.

The current practice was set by the board 15 years ago in a case involving Levitz Furniture Co. Now Griffin is instructing regional offices to disregard that standard and issue unfair-labor-practice complaints in future cases where employers unilaterally withdraw recognition and unions file charges, Swirsky says. That would eventually bring his argument for raising the standard in front of the board for a ruling.

Over the last 10 years, employers have won 70 percent of employer-requested decertification elections, NLRB records show. But requiring those elections often will mean a lengthy series of labor complaints and appeals by the union – even if few workers support it – before companies can withdraw recognition, Swirsky says. And while that’s dragging on, a company is stuck.

“You freeze the status quo in many respects,” he says. “That can be harmful for employees, too.”

Employee Handbooks Under Scrutiny

OK, pop quiz: What’s the difference between these two employee-handbook policies?

  1. “Be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  2. “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, co-workers, customers and vendors.”

One, according to the National Labor Relations Board, is legal. The other is not. (I’ll tell you which was which in a minute.)

Don’t fret if you have trouble seeing the difference. That’s why we have lawyers. And that’s why there’s plenty of work for them as the ThinkstockPhotos-517631808NLRB cracks down on employee-handbook language — including provisions that once were standard — that it says is too broad.

In a series of rulings the agency has told companies to revise policies that infringe on rights of workers — unionized or not — to talk to each other about the company in person or through social media.

“Employers are really waking up to this,” says Lauri F. Rasnick, a member of the firm at Epstein Becker Green of New York. “For a long time, nonunionized employers didn’t give a lot of thought to NLRB decisions.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce contends the effort is part of an anti-employer crusade. In a highly critical December report titled “Theater of the Absurd: The NLRB Takes on the Employee Handbook,” the trade group argues that the agency “has undertaken a campaign to outlaw heretofore uncontroversial rules found in employee handbooks and in employers’ social media policies.”

Worse, according to the chamber: the NLRB’s guidance to employers often is contradictory, creating “a morass of confusion that leaves employers wondering just how they are to exercise effective control over their workplaces.”

Rasnick agrees. “I do think that’s part of the challenge for employers,” she says, noting that NLRB decisions aren’t always consistent. And they are continuing to evolve, with confidentiality provisions attracting more scrutiny in recent rulings, she says.

The latest headline came this month after an administrative law judge ruled that Quicken Loans and five related companies had illegal rules in its employee handbook, which it calls “The Big Book.” (Despite the Quicken name, the companies are not owned by software company Intuit; they’re led by Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.)

To the untutored eye, many of the rules seem pretty standard stuff. An example: “Think before you Tweet. Or post, comment or pin. What you share can live forever. If it doesn’t belong on the front page of The New York Times, don’t put it online.”

The problem with this rule, wrote judge David I. Goldman in his April 7 ruling:  Although the policy doesn’t tell workers they can’t bad-mouth the company online, “an employee considering this suggestion would reasonably feel chilled by this rule from expressing negative (but protected) information” about the employer.

The companies are appealing the decision to the full board. But there’s little indication that the NLRB is letting up on the effort.

Back to our pop quiz. Of those two employee-handbook policies, the first (“be respectful”) is illegal, according to the NLRB’s general counsel. The second (“work in a cooperative manner”) is OK.

The problem is in telling workers they must be “respectful” to management, as well as customers and others, wrote Richard F. Griffin Jr. in a memo last year. An employee might reasonably see that as a ban on complaining about the company, he wrote.

The second example is legal, Griffin wrote. “Employees would reasonably understand that it is stating the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.”

NLRB Rules Against Chipotle

In yet another case of a corporate social media policy found to have violated employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity, an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board has ordered Chipotle Services LLC to rehire former employee James Kennedy, pay him back wages and post signs in its workplaces notifying employees that its former social media policies violated labor law.

Kennedy, who worked at a Chipotle restaurant in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown, Pa., found himself under management’s spotlight after he replied to a customer who tweeted “Free chipotle is the best thanks” with “nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members only make $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?”

After viewing the tweet, Chipotle national social media strategist Shannon Kyllo alerted regional manager Thomas Clark, who oversaw the location where Kennedy worked. Clark subsequently asked Kennedy to review Chipotle’s social media policy and delete the tweet, which he did.

Kennedy was later fired for what his supervisor, Jennifer Cruz, said was insubordination during a meeting at which he was asked to stop collecting signatures on a petition that addressed allegedly poor working conditions at Chipotle, including a lack of adequate meal and break times. Cruz later testified at the board proceedings that she feared for her safety during the meeting because Kennedy (an Army veteran who’d served three tours of combat duty) raised his voice and she feared he would become violent due to his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Administrative Law Judge Susan A. Flynn found in her ruling that the corporate social media policy Kennedy had been asked to review was outdated at the time, as Chipotle had revised its policy to better comply with the National Labor Relations Act, which forbids employers from interfering with employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity. However, Chipotle could still be found liable for violations under the old policy, as that policy was the one referred to by Clark, the regional manager.

“I find that Clark’s implicit direction not to post tweets concerning wages or working conditions constitutes a violation of [the NLRA],” said Judge Flynn, reports Law360.

The judge also concluded that Cruz violated Kennedy’s rights when she fired him. Cruz’s fear that Kennedy would lash out “was neither justified nor true, and was fabricated after the fact,” Flynn said. Kennedy was fired because he had refused to stop collecting signatures for his petition, she said.

Kennedy has since found new employment working in a unionized position for American Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport and told the Philadelphia Inquirer he’s not interested in going back to work at Chipotle, although, he added, he’ll miss the free meals.

“If you want to tweet something about your personal experience at your job, do it,” he told the Inquirer, cautioning against libel and slander. “Tweet at your bosses and your bosses’ bosses.”

 

NLRB Helping Nonunion Employees Protect Rights

Having followed and posted earlier about the Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille case — namely, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s 116040122 -- labor unionupholding of a National Labor Relations Board finding that posting and “liking” a criticism of Triple Play’s income-tax-withholding policies constitutes protected concerted activity —  this more recent post on LinkedIn caught my eye.

Especially its title: Why Union-Free Companies Should Be Very Concerned About This Particular Website … . For the record, here’s the actual site in question, coworker.org.

What also caught my eye was the fact that, according to the post (complete with an analysis by Fast Company worth reading), the NLRB has even dedicated a page on its own website explaining, for nonunion employees, what their rights are under the National Labor Relations Act. As that page states:

“The law we enforce gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, the [NLRB] will fight to restore what was unlawfully taken away. These rights were written into the original 1935 [NLRA] and have been upheld in numerous decisions by appellate courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

On the NLRB page, recent cases involving a range of industries and employees are highlighted on a map via pins that visitors to the site can hover over for summaries or — by clicking on the pins — full stories about the cases.

Workplacereport.com puts out this warning, that “as coworker.org garners more attention, it continues to grow; and, the more it grows, the more ability it has to do more than merely help nonunion employees with their nonunion issues.” It goes on:

“With coworker.org’s ability to collect data from any employee of any company who logs onto the site, it appears to be a ready-made tool for the co-founders’ former employer, the SEIU (or any other union, for that matter).”

Of course, as the website notes — similar to what many employment lawyers and workplace experts have said over the years — “one of the simplest strategies for any employer of any size to negate the effects coworker.org (or unions) might have on their company would be to identify and try to eliminate workplace issues before employees turn to the outside for change.”

But ask any of them, as well as your fellow HR practitioners, and it becomes apparent that anti-union proactivity is often easier to describe than carry out.

At the very least, Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, tells me in this earlier post, “gather your bragging points now; conduct vulnerability assessments,” with special focus on employees being treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and with robust employee-appreciation programs … those catch phrases “you often find in union petitions.”

His parting shot back in that April post is worth repeating here:

“[Bottom line, look closely at your people issues.] Are your people treating your people right? [Because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that] are almost always behind [employees being driven to unionize].”

Beware What Constitutes Concerted Activity

You may not “Like” this much, but the warning shot from a recent ruling broadening the definition of protected concerted activity is 179693002 -- Likestill reverberating and worth keeping front of mind as you go about your 2016 planning when it comes to social-media approaches and policies.

In the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont — upheld the National Labor Relations Board’s finding that two employees at the Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille in Watertown, Conn., were wrongfully terminated after one posted on Facebook, and the other “liked,” a disparaging criticism of the company’s income-tax-withholding policies.

An NLRB judge found, and the Second Circuit agreed, that both activities were protected and concerted under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act  because they involved multiple employees and were related to workplace complaints.

“It didn’t matter that there was no union to be found on the premises,” Carmon Harvey, a shareholder in national law firm LeClairRyan’s Philadelphia office, writes in a blog post at EPLI Risk.

“It also didn’t matter that customers could see the public employer-bashing,” she writes, “because the content wasn’t directed at customers, was not defamatory and did not tend to disparage the employer’s brand, products or services. This meant that their subsequent terminations were a big NLRA ‘no-no.’ ”

To top it off, the court also affirmed the NLRB’s ruling that the employer’s expansive Internet and social-media policy went too far, unlawfully prohibiting activity protected under the NLRA.

Brian Hall, writing on the Employer Law Report, highlights two interesting points about the case: that the comment and “Like” were protected because they both related to ongoing employee concerns over their employer’s workplace-tax withholding and their resulting tax liabilities, and that the Facebook communications “were not so disloyal or defamatory as to lose the protection of the Act.”

“Specifically,” he writes, “the court found that the employees did not disparage the employer’s products or services and their communications were not ‘maliciously untrue.’ ” He continues:

“The court was not swayed by any profanity contained in the one employee’s comment because it was not made in the presence of or directed at customers and did not reflect the employer’s brand. According to the court, accepting Triple Play’s argument that the Facebook discussion took place ‘in the presence of customers’ could lead to the undesirable result of chilling virtually all employee speech online. [As the ruling states,] ‘almost all Facebook posts by employees have at least some potential to be viewed by customers.’ “

As a result, the court upheld the board’s order requiring the employer to offer reinstatement and full back pay to the terminated employees. It also, as mentioned above, called into question the company’s social-media policy, which states that:

“[W]hen internet blogging, chat-room discussions … or other forms of communication extend to employees … [by] engaging in inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers, the employee may be violating the law and is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment.”

So what are the takeaways for employers and HR? Hall says they’re twofold:

“To help avoid liability, employers should:

  • Have their social-media policies reviewed by experienced counsel to eliminate provisions that can be reasonably misconstrued to restrict employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment with others; and
  • Understand, before disciplining employees for any communication or activity on social media, that otherwise protected communications or activities will not lose their protection under the NLRA simply because they disparage or are uncomplimentary [to] the employer, [and] contain statements that are not true, or contain profanity.”

Is it just me or has social media made it exponentially harder for employers to protect their reputations and brands? Even if you can’t comment on an employee’s disparaging private Facebook discussion, you’d better start arming yourself with strategies for getting your good word out online, as this recent HRE feature by Staff Writer Mark McGraw explores.

With Union Petitions Up, Get Your Message Out … NOW!

Since sharing this blog post the day before the National Labor Relations Board’s “quickie-election rules” went into effect on April Union14, I’ve been waiting to see if the predictions shared therein would come to pass.

More specifically, would there be — as predicted by various employment attorneys I talked to — a surge in the number of representation petitions filed with the NLRB by unions just waiting for those rules to help them hurry up their process?

Well, I just got confirmation from NLRB spokesperson Jessica Kahanek that there’s been a 32-percent spike in union petitions lodged with her agency in one month since the rule’s enactment. Broken down, that’s 212 petitions from March 13 to April 13 and 280 from April 14 to May 14. An impressive and additional 104 petitions were filed between May 14 and May 27, she tells me. Spike indeed!

Kahanek also notes that elections are now taking place — on average — 23 days from the date of the petition. This duration is a dramatic shift from the 38-day average that existed under the previous rule.

What’s also interesting to note is that the petitions didn’t come flooding in starting on April 14. On the contrary, says Steve Bernstein, a Tampa, Fla.-based labor attorney with Fisher & Phillips, “in the first two weeks after the rule, the numbers of petitions filed were flat, maybe even down some; only in the last two to three weeks have we been seeing them really climbing.”

So what does that mean? It means even the unions needed some time to figure out all the new procedures contained in the new rules. “It’s been a learning curve for everyone,” Bernstein says.

What it all really means — to employers — is now’s the time to talk up your company and make no bones about stressing with employees that it’s a better place to work communicating directly with management than through third-party representation.

Bernstein calls this “front-loading the message.”

Employers, he says, “have the opportunity to use this [albeit shorter] period of time to take the initiative away from the union.”

Some companies, in fact, are getting ready for the NLRB before the NLRB even comes knocking. They’re getting all the new data being asked for — employee emails, phone numbers, work histories, job classifications, etc. — collected and collated now “so they’re positioned to be standing on ‘Go’ when the petition arrives and can use all their time getting their message out,” says Bernstein. He recommends that you:

“start from the standpoint that, with the new rules, comes a new petition form giving unions the opportunity to request the earliest election dates possible, usually two weeks out. So you, the employer, can posit the question, ‘Why is this union trying to move so fast on something so important to your lives and the lives of your families as this?’ “

In terms of the new administrative and disclosure requirements contained in the rules, he says, rather than focusing only on scrambling around trying to meet them all, think about taking this approach:

“In many circles, the kind of employee data they’re now demanding from employers would look like an invasion of privacy. So you can put out the immediate message, ‘They’re not even here yet and look at the personal information they already want on you. Why do they want all this from us?’ “

In other words, the NLRB has changed the rules, so you can too. (FYI, my earlier post, linked above, contains the NLRB’s position and purpose in the rule changes.)

You don’t even have to wait for a petition to start the conversation. In addition to getting all your data ducks lined up, you can join with the many companies Bernstein is already seeing “embracing the notion that it’s OK to talk about this, now, with employees,” sooner than later, he says.

Nothing wrong with telling your employees, “Let’s have this union dialogue now,” he says, especially in businesses and industries where unions are dominant. Some companies are even fashioning tailored, customized videos along these lines to go with their orientation processes, i.e., why no union is better than representation.

“You’re really trying to establish this line of communication, getting them used to hearing about this, so it doesn’t just sound like a defensive move after the petition has arrived,” Bernstein says.

So, to recap, your message to them: “Hey, it’s OK to talk about this now, folks!”

And my message to you: Ditto.

The Mindfulness-Retaliation Connection

Two researchers from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School came up with an interesting connection 166198718 -- meditation2between mindfulness and employee retaliation that has me drawing a further connection of my own.

The Kenan-Flagler study by Ph.D. student Erin Cooke Long and Professor Michael S. Christian suggests practicing mindfulness at work, which can incorporate workplace meditation, can actually reduce retaliatory behavior in employees who feel treated unfairly. (Here’s the study’s abstract.)

I suppose this can be seen as intuitive, but it’s apparently the first time mindfulness and retaliation have been connected in any study. As Cooke Long describes it:

“When employees think they have an unfair boss or colleague or the organization is unfair, they might be tempted to seek retribution or act in ways to ‘even the score.’ Mindfulness helps them short-circuit emotions and negative thoughts so that they can respond more constructively.”

Which gets me to my additional connection: How bout keep them mindful and meditating, and perhaps you can keep the unions from knocking at your door? Perhaps we can add “incorporating mindfulness into your workforce” to the many suggestions experts and attorneys offered in a recent webinar I blogged about the day before the National Labor Relations Board’s “quickie-election” rule went into effect.

Everyone speaking in that webinar agreed the rule — which became effective April 14 — would increase union activity and win rates within the business community.

And as Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, said then, employers should be looking more closely at their people issues than ever before, because unhappy employees make for likely union members.

“Are your people treating your people right?” he said, because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that “are almost always behind” employees being driven to unionize.

At the risk of making another bold connection, my sources for this blog post on the importance and difficulty of bringing mindfulness into the workplace — including our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett — would concur that offering such a stress-reducer certainly sends the message that employees are being treated well.

And if the UNC study is to be believed, which I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be, perhaps mindfulness can also keep their minds off “getting back” at you through protected concerted activities.