“The two unions that we see most commonly in the collision repair industry are the IAM (the International Association of Machinists) and most recently the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), which has actually made the collision industry a target,” said Cory King, a California attorney who is chairman of the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) Human Resources Committee.
“That’s why we’re talking about this because these are two unions that are focusing on your industry.” Joseph Sbuttoni, an attorney with King at Fine, Boggs, Cope & Perkins, said he recently represented a California shop where a union organization went on. He said any size shop can become unionized. The shop he represented was fairly small, he said – but consolidator or franchise shops “in some respects may be more attractive to unions.”
Sbuttoni said that unionization efforts most frequently occur when workers contact a union after becoming disgruntled over pay or perceptions about how they are being treated. Union organizers then begin talking with employees, perhaps even at their homes.
While employers may be able to spot subtle signs of possible union activity – changes in how employees communicate or interact with shop owners or managers, for example – the first official notice may not come until a representation petition has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The petition must be signed by 30 percent of the employees
. “If you employ 20 people, and seven of them sign union authorization cards, the union can file a petition calling for an election among all 20 employees about whether to form a union,” Sbuttoni said.
Under federal requirements, that secret ballot vote is to be held 42 days after the petition has been filed. “That 42 days may be your only chance as an employer to communicate your message to the employees,” Sbuttoni said.
“If 51 percent or more vote yes, you’ve got yourself a union.”
A union, Sbuttoni points out, will represent all of your employees, not just those who voted in favor of unionization.
What makes things tough for employers, Sbuttoni said, is that while union organizers face few restrictions on what they can say or promise employees, there are strict limits on what employers can say or do during that 42-day period.
“Unions can promise anything,” he said. “They can promise, ‘If we get certified we’re going to have gourmet waffles every Friday, and we’re going to take over the management.’ Employers, however, cannot promise anything.”
What’s prohibited specifically, Sbuttoni said, sometimes goes by the acronym “PITS.” Employers cannot Promise, Interrogate, Threaten or conduct Surveillance as part of any effort to determine who started or supports the unionization (or why), or to disrupt the process.
“If one of these unlawful statements occurs during that 42 day period, the union can block the election, or can allow the election to happen and…then file objections to the election if they lose and then, guess what, get another election,” Sbuttoni said. Employers receiving notification of an upcoming union vote should try not to take it personally, remain calm and don’t over-react, thus avoiding the angry response that union organizers often tell employees to expect and report.
“Don’t give them that show; don’t follow their script,” Sbuttoni said. “That’s a page in their playbook, so don’t give them the expected reaction. The most important thing is figuring out the nature and depth of support for the union. And you won’t do that by puffing up and screaming.
Sbuttoni said an attorney or others can help the employer develop effective communication strategies to help legally gauge the degree of support for the union, and to help build credibility with employees. Working to build and maintain good relationships with employees, simply by knowing their family’s names and their personal interests, can be a key to preventing union efforts in the first place, he said.
Mike Schoonover, owner, Schoon-over Bodyworks Inc., St. Paul, Minnesota, said union organization was attempted at his shop years ago, but failed by two votes.
“I can offer two take-aways from it,” Schoonover said. “Don’t change a pay plan without the buy-in of all the employees, sitting down and discussing the negative issues. And No. 2, unions are bulldogs. So have a bulldog on your side.”