Unionizing Could Be Next in the Return-to-Office Power Struggle
(Bloomberg) -- When a group of workers at the National Women’s Law Center broke the news to their boss that they’d agreed to unionize in February 2020, they did it in the form of a greeting card: “Congratulations on your baby
girl union!” After a tense few months of deliberation, management told the group they’d voluntarily recognize the 50-plus member bargaining unit, now one of nearly a dozen workplaces that have unionized with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union this year.
While the two sides have yet to reach a first contract, the timing of the unionization drive—a month before the pandemic hit—was prescient. By April 2021, as vaccines became available and bosses started dreaming of fully inhabited offices, the NWLC union was able to negotiate the terms of a potential return to work. Together with management, the employees established a “memorandum of understanding” surrounding Covid-19 policies. This meant that no matter when the organization asked employees back to the office, they would be guaranteed eight weeks’ notice.
“Since we unionized, management has involved the union in every major decision regarding unit staff, which has had positive spillover effects for non-unit staff too,” said NWLC union member Elizabeth Tang.
As companies hash out—and keep changing—whether and how their workforces will have to permanently return to the office, employees increasingly want a voice. Wall Street firms like JPMorgan Chase & Co and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have made it clear that most of its employees will need to show up in person, while companies like American Express Co. and Starbucks Corp are hedging with a hybrid setup.
Typically, return-to-office mandates are determined by a company’s executive team and its human resources department. For corporate workers wondering if unionization might give them more leverage with those decision-makers, Harvard labor law professor Benjamin Sachs says a contract that protects them can be particularly useful when directives keep shifting. “Collective bargaining is supple, flexible and responsive,” he said, explaining that before employers make major policy changes in a unionized workplace, they are required to negotiate over how it will impact members of the staff bargaining unit.
Meanwhile, the laws that govern non-unionized work, Sachs says, are “a blunt instrument.” Parents worried about endangering unvaccinated children, for example, lack an obvious path to raise concerns, other than having one-off conversations with their managers.
U.S. workplaces, including offices, are mostly non-union, which some business leaders say helps them stay nimble and efficient and avoid rigidity that can come with collective bargaining. With only 6.3% of the private sector unionized, most examples of successful return-to-work union-led pushback remain in the public and nonprofit spheres.
Nonprofit Professional Employees Union president Katie Barrows says several unionized nonprofits are working on similar agreements to the NWLC’s. The Connecticut state employees’ union pushed Governor Ned Lamont to reverse a return-to-work order and open up the possibility of long-term hybrid work. The trend has even impacted unions themselves: The AFL-CIO’s employees are accusing the union federation of failing to negotiate in good faith over a policy compelling them to work in-person.
While there has been a small movement of corporate workforce unionizations in recent years, the issue of RTO has not yet prompted a groundswell of new organizing. The closest thing to it was a May strike at Washingtonian magazine, after CEO Cathy Merrill published an op-ed suggesting that staff who wanted to work remotely could be reclassified as contractors. By late last week, Washingtonian staff unionized. “There had been talk about forming a union for years, but I’m not going to lie, it really gained steam after that op-ed,” said Washingtonian Guild member Jessica Sidman. “It was a very public example of us feeling like we needed to have more of a voice at the company where we work.”
Return-to-office edicts have made non-unionized workers more aware of their limited power. Alphabet Workers’ Union, an unrecognized group that launched publicly in January, has said it isn’t seeking to win recognition or to collectively bargain with Alphabet Inc’s Google, in part because its membership is open to contract workers who don’t have any legal right to negotiate with the company. Instead, it uses tactics like petitions to try to force changes, but that approach has its limits. Mayuri Raja, a member of AWU, said the group has been organizing around return policies but that “it’s quite hard to tell when things have an impact.”
For example, says Raja, employees are frustrated with a Google policy that would cut people’s pay if they permanently shift to remote work from a less-expensive location. While the policy predates the pandemic, it’s become newly visible as more employees want to keep working from home. AWU members have discussed the policy at company town halls and have created spreadsheets where employees can compare their new salaries. But Raja wonders if a formal bargaining process would’ve forced Google to maintain employees’ pay. “It’s not as though our labor changes depending on where we work,” says Raja. (“We always pay at the top of the local market based on where an employee works from,” said a Google spokesperson.)
Marshall Babson, a management-side attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and former member of the National Labor Relations Board, says he thinks this chaotic moment will breed an uptick in unionizations, which can take anywhere from a few months to years to formalize.
“There have been a number of employers who have [seen] increased organizing precisely because the employees have not been satisfied” with how their company rolled out return plans, he said. “Unions are going to say, ‘We can do for you what you can’t do for yourself.’”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.