Nine staff have been let go at chocolate maker Dandelion which has struggled with sales over the last year. The company says that the headwinds it was facing in the market meant it needed to make cuts, but the layoffs have come at a time when some staff members were building support for unionising the workforce. All nine of the staff who were let go were involved in that unionisation drive, and there are cries of foul-play and intimidation.
The United States has employer-friendly labour laws compared to some other western countries. This can enable smaller companies, in particular, to be dynamic and take more risks, but it can also lead to abrupt hiring and firing that can be weaponised as a tool of intimidation. By firing people involved in organising the unionisation drive the company is perceived to be sending a message to the remaining staff. Keep quiet, or you’re next.
What the Law Says
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which forbids employers from restraining or coercing employees from engaging in union activity. Time magazine quoted professor Mark Gaston Pearce in relation to Amazon’s union fight:
The downward trend in support for the union between the petitioning stage and the actual vote count is common in union fights against powerful companies – Mark Gaston Pearce, a visiting professor and executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama Administration.
Amazon Wrote the Anti-Union Playbook
It is an unfortunate necessity to cut costs during hard times, however, the optics, as they say, don’t look good in this case. In the EU it is illegal to discriminate against an employee for being in a union – illegal in fact to even use an employees union membership for any purpose other than when necessary (part of the General Data Protection Regulation)
Ecommerce giant Amazon also recently won a battle to avoid unionising their workforce, and potentially set up a playbook for how to thwart a union drive. The company embarked on a nine-month campaign to persuade employees to vote against unionisation. Leaflets and banners were visible in all offices, regular emails were sent out and a website was even created to promote the companies anti-union message, often based around slightly misconstrued facts, such as the level of dues they would have to pay as members.
The vote was taken in April and the company safely won. 3,000 staff members who part of the initial movement subsequently left the company.
Unions can work well in companies, especially where there are deep cultural roots, often driven in cooperatives and share ownership schemes. A union representative will often have a board seat and ensure that employees rights are considered when making decisions, and sharing the burden when bad news has to be delivered.
But often a company built by entrepreneurs who have risked their own capital, free time and sometimes even health to build a business, have misgivings about giving up a portion of the power to a union representative that may not share the owners desire to balance the employee’s interests with the company’s.
If a private company does not want to unionise, it does not automatically mean they are against employee rights, it might simply be that the founders wish to maintain control of a company they feel they have earned the right, through their personal sacrifices, to continue to control.
The companies challenge now, however, is to prove they are worthy of their employees’ trust. Their move to fire the 9 employees certainly looks like a ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ tactic. It may have been wiser to have tried harder with the carrot before getting out the stick.