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Dealers must keep communication open to deflect unions: attorneys

November 23, 2010
When employees intent on unionizing confront a business owner or president, he too often views that act as the first sign of trouble. Rather, it represents the sound of the second shoe dropping. Such disconnection between managers and subordinates is fertile ground for unions to sprout. Various unions represent workers at about 35 percent of the Chicago area's 600 new-vehicle dealerships, a figure markedly higher than the 13 percent unionization rate nationally, and the local unions actively seek additional inroads. What radiates from dealership management often determines whether a union can take root. "People are reaching out, and the question is, are they going to reach out to a union or are they going to reach out to you?" David Radelet told an audience of 40 dealers, general managers and service managers at a CATA seminar Jan. 29. Radelet's law firm, Franczek Sullivan, represents CATA dealers in employment matters, including fights to deflect unions. Radelet and three colleagues led the seminar, which traced scenarios of when and where union organizers typically contact employees; what employers may do that unwittingly causes them to recognize a union; and what an employer can do in the days before an election to help the dealership turn back a union. Effective communication is the foundation for remaining union-free. Managers must be attuned to their subordinates and be able to detect office vibes to measure the organization's health. Radelet recounted one instance of a dealer who called him upon being served notice of a unionization petition. To measure the service manager's level of engagement with his technicians, Radelet posed a series of questions: What are the technicians' names? Are they married? Do they have children? Hobbies? Tellingly, the first question could not be answered completely. The goal is not an ongo- ing coffee klatsch in the service bay. But knowing such details creates personal ties in a workforce that help to promote dignity, credibility, respect and trust-human needs a union seeks to fill when there is a void with management. Francek Sullivan's Sally Scott said management should regularly make clear, through words and deeds, why workers are served better by management. First, management should be competitive with the salary rates negotiated for unionized employees. Regarding benefits, nearly every health care and retirement plan offered at non union shops outshines the union plans. Employees considering a union should be reminded that unions spend the money they collect from initiation fees, dues, fines and other assessments on property, administrative salaries, and vehicles for those administrators. For instance, Scott said Teamsters Local 731 has assets exceeding $2 million. Union organizers often appeal to workers by promising many things they may not, and often cannot, deliver. If unionization ultimately is ratified, the workers have won nothing more than the right to have the union negotiate on their behalf. And the process to decertify a union is arduous. Scott said, "You can't just 'try on' a union." A dealer can fend off thoughts of unionization by remaining visible and accessible. Healthy employer-employee communications can diffuse an us-versus-them mentality by workers. Communications can be maintained through such mechanisms as periodic company and department meetings, bulletin boards, and formal and informal policies of conduct. Dealers who are members in good standing for at least the past six months can qualify for legal representation that is three-fourths paid for by the CATA, to try to ward off unionization attempts.