Don’t ignore labor unions…even in Utah
Salt Lake City — On September 8, 2021, President Joe Biden addressed a meeting of union leaders in the White House, saying, “Labor will always be welcome…I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” The President has been good to his word, with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enthusiastically leading the charge.
Utah employers may believe that in a “right-to-work state,” they need not pay attention to organized labor or the administrative actions of the NLRB. They would be mistaken. Unionization has come to Utah. Recent union successes in organizing mechanics and electricians at the Park City ski resort and at several local Starbucks stores reflect nationwide trends indicating a significant uptick in union activity. Utah is not immune to union organization and employers would be wise to take notice of recent developments.
Unionization is a traditional response to employee dissatisfaction. With President Biden helping to shape public attitudes, unions enjoy a level of public support not seen since the 1960s, with 71 percent of Americans expressing approval of labor unions in the most recent Gallop Poll. This shift in public sentiment, coupled with changing dynamics in the workforce, have resulted in unprecedented increases in the number of petitions for union elections filed with the NLRB in 2022.
The demographics of those looking to unionize is shifting as well. As more highly educated, younger, and politically progressive people enter the workforce in rank-and-file jobs, we have seen those employees in Utah and beyond look to assert themselves in the workplace by seeking a greater voice within their companies. This has led to more organization efforts, both with traditional labor unions and in non-traditional, worker-focused ways. Some have collaborated with community groups and local religious organizations to amplify a pro-union message. These “new-wave” workers are adept at leveraging social media to publicize complaints about working conditions and other terms of employment. This ease of communication to a larger audience makes union organizing far easier today than in the past, when unions primarily relied on surreptitious face-to-face meetings and hallway conversations to spread their message. As just one example, the employee who organized the first Starbucks location in Buffalo has been involved in aggressive “virtual organizing” throughout the nation.
A union message can be convincing. Unions traditionally promise employees higher wages, better benefits, safer workplaces, and a voice in business operations. Today, we are seeing new categories of issues driving unionization efforts, such as demands for predictable scheduling, increased staffing, remote work, non-discriminatory treatment, an end to workplace harassment, changes in corporate governance and policy—and the right to not report to a haunted workplace (yes—that is true).
But employers not facing a union threat also must pay attention to their legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Employees coming forward to complain about a long litany of workplace issues also enjoy legal protections that will be aggressively defended by the NLRB. This is “protected concerted activity.” As current NLRB Chairman Lauren McFerran says last year:
“You know, I don’t think anyone, when the Act was passed, would have contemplated that it would potentially be used by their 2020 counterparts to join together and demand personal protective equipment during a pandemic, or to challenge the denial of employment protections in a gig economy, or to talk about the silencing of harassment victims. But in my view, it is manifestly clear from the plain language of the Act that it does protect all of this and more.”
Utah employers are not immune from national trends. And Utah’s employers would be well advised to pay close attention to their employees and their legal obligations under the National Labor Relations Act.
This news update is designed to provide general information on pertinent legal topics. The statements made are provided for educational purposes only. They do not constitute legal advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of Holland & Hart LLP or any of its attorneys other than the author. This news update is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Holland & Hart LLP. If you have specific questions as to the application of the law to your activities, you should seek the advice of your legal counsel.