The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 24, 2013

Watercooler: How a union could affect the workplace

By Karla L. Miller
Special to The Washington Post

— Q: My question is about the possible formation of a union at my workplace. Our wages are low for the type of work we do, compared with similar local organizations. Many employees are dissatisfied with management's responses. Some have requested union representation from our parent company, which has a union in place. The staff in our office is already split; some fear losing their jobs or isolating management further, while the pro-union employees do not want to hear anything against it. I worry that a union will mean just another set of bureaucrats to work for in addition to our less-than-stellar management. Please discuss the union process and how I can avoid the tension. Is a union a good idea?

A: So, it's the devil you know vs. the devil you don't. Let's get to know the latter.

Unions safeguard workers against abuse and often win them better pay and benefits. But as you note, management may dig in even harder against a union. Also, employment lawyer Declan Leonard, managing partner at business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, notes that dues for union members can take a bite out of those higher wages.

Do some Internet research on the national organization behind your would-be union. Find out what your parent company's union has done for workers — preferably from the workers themselves. Look at your pro-union co-workers; do you share their concerns, or do they have their own agendas?

The National Labor Relations Board (nlrb.gov) is a good place to learn more. This independent federal agency oversees union elections and investigates charges against unions and employers.

Your choice may not be all-or-nothing. In some states, non-union workers in unionized workplaces are still protected — and may have to make payments similar to dues.

Also, you don't have to join a union to fight for better conditions; search "protected concerted activity" on nlrb.gov.

I suggest you learn your rights, stand firm and listen with an open yet privately skeptical ear to each side.

Q: I got a job at a unionized company and worked with the most unreasonable and combative person I'd ever met. Her nastiness was a large part of why I left a few months later, and I told the manager so. He said she had union protection and nothing could be done. Did I have any recourse?

A: It's not that union workers have immunity, but a company looking to fire them has to go through the union, "follow a progressive disciplinary policy and document . . . the offending employee's conduct," Leonard says. Your boss evidently didn't consider workplace harmony worth the effort needed to ditch Ms. Nastybritches. For what it's worth, I hear plenty about indestructible non-union jerks, too.

Karla L. Miller writes an advice column on navigating the modern workplace. Each week she will answer one or two questions from readers. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter,@KarlaAtWork