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'Union avoidance:' management's new industrial relations strategy.

'Union avoidance:' management's new industrial relations strategy As industrial relations in the United States continue to experience rapid change even as the economy improves, it is becoming clear that market pressures are not the only forces driving these changes. In particular, the growing variance in labor practices within industries suggests the need to look not only at pressures from the environment, but also at the different strategies and tactics introduced by the parties at the firm level. Many argue that the most important of these currently operate from the management side.

The most important of management strategies may be the decision to try to avoid unions altogether. One of the more controversial of such efforts is the use of aggressive campaigns in representational elections. These often include management unfair labor practices which, as Paul Weiler pointed out in 1983, have increased fivefold since the 1950's. The upward trend in management unfair labor practices parallels quite closely the decline in public support for unions over this period.

In many ways, the more desirable strategy for management would be to avoid representational campaigns altogether. What such strategies have in common is an effort to move production away from current areas of union strength which may make it possible to avoid dealing with unions at all.

Explaining union avoidance

What factors cause firms to pursue strategies which lead to the avoidance of unions? A unique survey of management industrial relations practices conducted by The Conference Board in 1977 and 1983 may help answer that question. The survey asked about a range of organizational characteristics, labor relations practices, and bargaining outcomes in unionized firms. It also asked directly about the priority given to "union avoidance" strategies; is it a higher priority than achieving favorable outcomes in collective bargaining ("best bargain" strategies)? The following tabulation shows the breakdown of responses for the 228 unionized firms answering in both 1977 and 1983:

As one might expect, the priority shifts toward union avoidance in 1983. Looking at those firms whose positions were consistent in both years (56 union avoidance firms, 111 best bargain firms), several factors seem to explain their decision. One factor concerns the ability of unions to counter union avoidance strategies. The United Auto Workers, for example, got General Motors to agree to be neutral in representational campaigns in its southern plants, and recently secured agreements to limit subcontracting; airline and trucking unions have secured restrictions on double-breasted operations.

The statistical association between three variables--percent of a firm's work force organized, plant-by-plant bargaining structure, and number of new establishments opened since 1975--and the priority attached to union avoidance for firms whose strategy was the same in 1978 and 1983 suggests that the association is strong, especially with the percent of the firm's work force organized. The first two variables help measure the ability of unions to counter such strategies, while the last variable measures the opportunity for firms to pursue these strategies. A separate discriminant function analysis finds that these three variables correctly classify 91 percent of the union avoidance firms and 88 percent of the best bargain firms.

Consequence of union avoidance

Perhaps the most important and most obvious consequence of a union avoidance strategy is its effect on union membership and growth within unionized firms. Overall, unionization in union avoidance firms dropped, on average, from 23.5 percent in 1977 to 18.6 in 1983, compared with 63.5 to 60.5 percent for best bargain firms over the same period. Because union coverage was substantially lower in the former to begin with, its decline in percentage terms is much more substantial; a 20.8-percent decline in coverage for union avoidance firms, compared with a 5-percent decline for best bargain firms.

Some indication of how this decline came about is suggested by the data in the following tabulation:

As measured by plant openings, the union avoidance firms--which are less unionized--appear to be growing about twice as fast as the best bargain firms. Most importantly, union election victories occur half as often in union avoidance firms as in best bargain firms. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that unions do not appear to be concentrating their organizing efforts at the best bargain firms. The ratio of elections to plant openings is about the same for both sets of firms. This suggests, if anything, that more union resources are directed at the union avoidance firms, as one would imagine that it is more difficult and costly to secure elections in them.

Overall, new plants at best bargain firms are almost six times more likely to be organized than their counterparts at union avoidance firms. This difference seems very large given that the overall union win rate is only twice as great in the former--especially if we assume that the ratio of elections to new plants is roughly similar for firms in both groups. The explanation could be that union avoidance firms run election campaigns that are much more successful in their new plants than in their old ones. While this may play some role, it seems more likely that the great difference in organization rates at new plants is due to the greater ability of union avoidance firms to keep representational campaigns away from their new plants.

Differences in collective bargaining outcomes are also associated with the union avoidance priority. For example, the survey results suggest that union avoidance firms pay lower wages to their union employees, other things being equal. Even though best bargaining firms are concentrating their efforts on collective bargaining, the lower union coverage of avoidance firms appears to give them greater bargaining power vis-a-vis their unions and leads to lower settlements.
COPYRIGHT 1986 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:conference paper, International Relations Research Association
Author:Chalykoff, John; Cappelli, Peter
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Apr 1, 1986
Words:939
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