Print this page

BSCs and Unionization

Written by  Irwin Brown

Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Anyone who follows current events knows that employees of operating companies in the building service contract industry are target-rich opportunities for organizing by labor unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), among others.

Have you ever seen the embarrassing and hostile demonstrations and picket lines set up for Janitors for Justice, a national movement initiated by the SEIU? If so, you know that union organizing is not a gentleman’s sport—it is trench warfare. In my 28 years of spearheading defenses to union organizing, I came to learn that employees never vote for unions; they vote against management. Noted psychologist Charles Hughes once commented that “companies that get unions deserve them and they get the union they deserve.”

Over the past 20 years, changes in the economic realities in manufacturing and smokestack industries caused labor unions to lose millions of members, billions of dollars and political clout. Barack Obama’s election changed the fortunes of labor organizations. Emboldened by the success of its investment of time, money and manpower, unions are now focusing on organizing the service sector to protect its future survival. Just look at the slew of recent legislation and presidential executive decisions undertaken to advance and feather union nests, strengthen union organizing.

Economists spent a lot of time comparing the cost of operating a unionized company to operating an identical nonunion company and discovered that unionized companies cost nearly 40 percent more. Nonunion companies pay as much or more in pay and benefits than unionized companies do. The real differences lies in the costs associated with negotiating union contracts, handling union grievances, arbitrations, productivity slowdowns and the need to expand the human resource department to administer, document, and manage the additional paperwork requirements.

More often than not, when I am urgently retained to defend against a secret union organizing effort, I ask the employer why he/she prefers not to have a union. I usually hear some vague undefined reason or almost as often no answer at all. There are dozens of good solid legitimate reasons not to have a union, but the best answer to preserving a union-free operation is that you want your organization to survive. Multitudes of business failures can be traced directly to the narrow-minded objectives of union leadership.

Some employers refuse to tell their employees why they are opposed to unions. They think that “what the employees don’t know can’t hurt them.” They even argue with me that they “don’t want to open a can of worms” or “let’s let sleeping dogs lie.” Those employers are betting on the future of their businesses on some half-baked cliché. But as any gambler will tell you, eventually your luck will run out. Speaking honestly and openly with your employees in a respectful way about the realities of unionization can serve as an effective preemptive strategy to poison the union salesman’s watering hole.

The secret to avoiding unionization is very simple: Make unions unnecessary. When you really understand how your employees perceive their workplace, without wishful thinking, you can remove the need to have a union in the first place. Believe me, it is by far cheaper, less stressful and faster to neutralize the things that irritate your employees than to wage a divisive, costly and time-consuming election with an uncertain outcome.

Have you looked at your handbook lately? What does it say about unions? How do your pay and benefits compare to other firms in the industry or in the area? What sort of complaint-resolution procedure do you have? Remember, open-door policies rarely work and are usually not perceived by employees as open. When was the last time your supervisors and managers received training on the early warning signs of union activity? How do you handle conflict, discrimination or harassment prevention? If you answer that it has been a while, then you may be just like that gambler betting the future of your company.

Do you know what questions you may lawfully ask of applicants to determine whether they may be predisposed to outside third-party interference with your operations? Interviewing and selection procedures are the cornerstone to avoiding union organizing. How do you handle the on-boarding process of new employees? Did you know that three simple procedures can avoid job hopping from dissatisfied workers and can keep employees working on average three years longer?

If you are like most building service contractors, labor represents the first or second line expense on your budget. More importantly, the effective utilization of your human capital cannot only reduce expenses, but it can also add to your profitability and improve customer retention. You cannot save your way to profit. People are not a cost to be managed but an asset to be leveraged.

I will be very happy to forward a simple human resources assessment that you can self-administer if you send me an e-mail request.

Irwin Brown, president of Cosmos Consulting Group, has devoted the last 28 years to updating traditional labor relations consulting practice concentrating on conflict resolution, union avoidance, combating union organizing efforts, and the negotiation of first and critical union contracts. He has spearheaded more than 628 successful counter-union organizing campaigns and has deunionized 71 companies. He can be reached at ijbrown22@