labor relations

A Resurgence of Labor Organizing and Influence: Recent Trends and Why Communications Is Important

March 26, 2024

Labor organizing has experienced a resurgence in recent years, kickstarted by the pandemic. This resurgence has been so powerful that Americans support of unions has burgeoned to its highest point since 1965. In 2023, the labor movement was extremely active, but provided a mixed bag to workers, despite many headlines. Some workers made news by obtaining record concessions and/or significant wage increases from employers, while others experienced a steep and arduous road to a contract. 2024 is initially looking like it is a slowdown compared to recent years, with some observers believing there will be fewer strikes, but in an election year anything is possible.

The pandemic created working conditions rife with problems that workers saw as threatening to their health and safety. COVID-19 posed an immediate threat to the health of many workers, and during the pandemic and the years following, there has been an increase in retail crime, threatening the safety of employees.

Furthermore, the social perception around workers has dramatically changed. The pandemic highlighted the importance of front-line workers to everyday life. These workers, often paid low wages, now had leverage, elevating union authority and impacting the economy at a level that has not been seen in decades. For example, August 2023 had approximately 4.1 million labor hours lost due to work stoppages, which is the highest amount in 23 years. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board and its general counsel, who regulate union issues, are now in the hands of pro-labor Democrats, some of whom were appointed by President Biden—who claims to be the most pro-union president ever.

Younger workers, particularly Gen Z, have also been extremely integral to the labor resurgence. Gen Z’s support for unions is the highest of any generation and this support cuts across both educational and political divides. Their ardent support can be attributed predominantly to economic anxiety and attitudes more progressive than older generations.

In 2023, there were many prominent labor battles that regularly found the front page, from the United Auto Worker’s strike, to SAG-AFTRA and WGA going on strike in Hollywood and the Teamsters winning a new contract at UPS. The number of workers involved in demonstrations have steadily increased as has the number of filings for a union election.

With a range of possible outcomes and the pressure of all-time high public support, it is important that organizations examine their internal and external communications to help uphold their reputation and maintain a culture that keeps employees happy and reduces turnover.

There is one key principle to adhere to that can help stem issues before they even arise.

Focus on Creating a Healthy Work Environment.

This is the overarching concept, because a healthy working environment is the foundation for avoiding labor issues. Managing with consistency and fairness, using structure and process to drive performance and identifying and acting on issues and ideas that are all prime examples of ways to foster an equitable and healthy environment for employees.

This isn’t a job just for Human Resources either. Communications staff, leadership and HR must be in sync and provide purposeful, clear and frequent communications with employees.

If there are permeating labor relations issues that persist and pose reputational harm, organizations should consider adopting the following strategies:

Engage with workers and issues as early as possible. It is most critical to engage with the workers and the problem causing discontent early. Workers typically look to organize because they don’t feel heard, feel safe, feel fairly compensated, feel treated equally or feel connected to the company vision. Listening to employees helps to earn their trust, which, in turn, will encourage them to recommit to the brand.

Over-prepare to over-communicate and over-anticipate. Create a surgical near- and long-term internal and external communication strategy to engage most influential audiences and stakeholders that utilizes a multi-channel, “surround-sound” approach. Messaging should be consistent and purposefully repetitive. Generally speaking, audiences need to hear a message somewhere between seven to 20 times before it resonates.

Be an authentic and authoritative source of information. Take steps to correct gross, significant misinformation and inform neutral audiences. A simple way to correct misinformation is to contextualize the ongoing situation or fact in question—this way, an organization’s actions aren’t defined by others. It also helps to make leadership and management relatable for employees and fosters comfortable interactions.

An organization should also engage third-party allies. Public third-party support is paramount because it adds credibility and backing to an organization’s message. For example, if an organization is looking to add allies, become active in the community and proactively engage with key stakeholders in the areas where the organization has a presence.

Audit communications processes. See if there was a communications breakdown that led to labor issues. Without self-examination, the organization could be setting itself up for a cycle of dealing with the same, potentially avoidable issues.

Social media should be used with great care. Utilize social media to ensure that the greater contextual story is in the narrative, but be careful not to amplify negative storylines. Furthermore, employees and the public can see through disingenuousness. Being consistent with content and tone will help build trust with respective audiences.

Ways to ensure that the greater contextual story is being understood and conveyed in social media include:

  • Assuming a posture of acknowledgement and taking steps to redirect off social channels (i.e., directing to published statements).
  • Monitoring and tracking volume of commentary to align against engagement thresholds.
  • Pending real-time context, suspending social media accounts, as needed, for 48 hours.

Tactics that are counterproductive and can amplify negative storylines include:

  • Responding to every comment or direct message.
  • Responding to any comment without final signoff from legal and labor relations team.
  • Engaging with content that is inflammatory or overly combative.

Keep an eye on new legislative or legal developments. Throughout the year and across jurisdictions, new laws can be enacted, and legal disputes resolved, which can lead to a number of policy changes. For example, this year, a landmark NLRB decision eased the route to bargaining for employees and prospective unions. Monitoring legal and legislative developments will ensure that the organization communicates based on the current policy landscape without surprises that it may have to retroactively address and allows it to forecast potential moments of labor activism.

With organized labor being poised for a cooldown, many organizations risk getting caught taking their eye off the ball, allowing for issues to arise in the workforce at a peak moment of worker support. Above all else, organizations should regularly focus on creating and maintaining a healthy work environment rooted in structure and conversation, and managing with consistency and fairness. In the event a labor issue arises, engage with the workers and the issue as early as possible, over-prepare to over-communicate and over-anticipate, be an authentic and authoritative source of information and be selective about the use of social media. After all, leaving labor issues unaddressed could lead to serious issues legal issues, including injunctions or even footing a union’s collective bargaining expenses.

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