Business groups alarmed by rise of ‘micro-unions’ in workplace

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Business groups are sounding the alarm over decisions from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that they say would make it easier for small groups of people to create “micro-unions” in the workplace.

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The NLRB first recognized the so-called micro-unions in 2011 at Specialty Healthcare, a rehabilitation center, where a group of nursing assistants wanted to organize. Then this week, the labor board endorsed another micro-union, giving a small group of employees at Macy's permission to organize.

Industry groups fear the arrangements could create havoc by forcing companies to bargain with multiple unions at the same work site.

“We are very concerned, because the Specialty Healthcare case, in our view, was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Eric Oppenheim, who owns 18 franchise restaurants throughout Maryland and D.C. “Now, they're going to target industries that traditionally were very difficult to unionize.”

The rise of micro-unions has all sorts of industries flustered, from restaurants and hotels to grocery stores and manufacturers.

“I think most employers, if they haven't been approached by a micro-union yet, they're definitely waiting,” said Amanda Wood, director of employment at the National Association of Manufacturers.

The Speciality Healthcare decision gave unions the ability to, in essence, “gerrymander” a workplace, says Jim Plunkett, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The problem with Speciality Healthcare is not the smallness of the unions, but the way the lines are gerrymandered within a workplace,” Plunkett said. “They're allowed to cherry pick the employees in the workplace that they know will be supportive of the union.”

Meanwhile, the remaining employees at a workplace can opt to either form their own separate union, or not join one at all, which employers say makes the collective bargaining process all the more confusing.

Labor unions and public interest groups say micro-unions will help level the playing field for employees, so that those who want to organize can do so.

“In most workplaces, business owners have figured out ways to hijack the collective bargaining process,” said Keith Wrightson, worker safety and health advocate at Public Citizen. “Workers really do not have any place to turn to.”

Employers, on the other hand, “feel like the deck is stacked against them,” said Wood.

Many small business owners say they want to create such a good work environment that their employees don't feel like they need a union to negotiate for better pay and benefits.

Other employers are planning more strategic attacks on micro-unions.

Michael Lotito, an employment and labor attorney and co-chairman of the Workplace Policy Institute, said employers could protect against micro-unions by merging a store's different departments so that every worker shares the same responsibilities.

That means at a pizza restaurant, for example, employees would take turns driving the delivery car, making pizzas, serving customers, and cleaning the tables, Lotito said.

“When you create these individual departments with separate managers and job descriptions, you are inviting micro-unions,” Lotito said.

But this is easier said than done, said Lotito, who pointed out that it could be difficult for companies to blend the job responsibilities of all their employees.

Take the hospitality industry, for example.

“If you have a hotel and all the maids organize, you could be bargaining with them, the people at the front desk and the bellhops,” said Jay Perron, vice president of government affairs and public policy at the International Franchise Association.

“This is something franchise owners will potentially have to deal with down the road,” Perron said.

Micro-unions could also cause problems at grocery stores.

“I could certainly see it being an issue at grocery stores,” Plunkett said. “One union could go after the deli workers, and another union could go after the bakers, and another could go after cashiers.”

Many employers say they have never had to deal with unions before, and feel unprepared for negotiating multiple contracts.

Jerry Howard, CEO of the National Association of Home Builders, said he sees micro-unions as the “first real effort” by unions to organize homebuilders.

“Right now, in our industry we have a predominately non-unionized workforce,” Howard said.

He said micro-unions are now “on our radar.”

“The NLRB has gamed the system so much in favor for the unions, we need to rethink our strategies,” Howard said.

“We'll do our best to discourage these things from getting into our sector,” he said.

The practical effect of micro-unions for builders could be higher prices for homebuyers, Howard said.

“This would be a serious blow to housing affordability,” he said.

The restaurant industry also warns that prices could jump for consumers. Oppenheim said his fast food stores are built on providing customers affordable food, but negotiating with multiple unions would raise his costs and force him to possibly double the price of a hamburger.

“If micro-unions were to spring up, it would be a disaster for our industry,” Oppenheim said.

Customer service could also suffer, employers say.

“Customers are used to approaching employees, asking questions, and expecting that person to help,” said Brian Dodge, spokesman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). “But a customer could approach an employee looking for advice or help and be told that's not their job.”