Volume 23 (2022), Issue 7 (July)
ISSN 1619-2400, www.crisisnavigator.com

E-Unions Present New Communications Challenges

by James Donnelly

The dot-coms. The shooting stars that drove the New Economy through the late 90's have fizzled in the past year. The survivors face challenges with employees who foster dark outlooks for 2001 and beyond. Once only an issue for Old Economy companies, "collective bargaining" has found a place among the e-workforce and it's creating significant communications challenges for these companies, many of which are struggling just to stay in business.

New Economy employees' dreams of quick growth and stock options are being replaced by concerns for job security, compensation, benefits and reasonable work hours. In lieu of a receptive management to listen to these concerns, the workers are turning to unions who are eager to fill that void. Two decades of membership decline have union leaders exploring for potential members. In some ways, the employment Big Bang of the dot-coms has forced their hand-unions have struggled to grow with the New Economy just to maintain its share of the total workforce. 13.5 percent of U.S. workers were unionized in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Slowly, the unions are making headway. In December, Microsoft reached a $97 million settlement of lawsuits from temporary workers who challenged the software giant's employment practices with the help of the Washington Alliance of Technology (WashTech) - a union attempting to organize workers at Microsoft and Amazon. These folks lent a hand to disgruntled workers at Etown.com, who in January tried to conduct the first union vote at a dot-com company, with the help of the Communication Workers of America (C.W.A.). Unions have even entered through the Old Economy back doors: through warehouse and distribution employees behind the scenes of dot-coms who unload trucks, pack shipments for customers. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) now represents 1,500 workers of Peapod.com and Albertsons.com, finalizing a contract for a group of Peapod employees in the Mid-Atlantic region. The UFCW, hand-in-hand with the Teamsters, has also aggressively targeted Webvan.

Although unionization is a well-worn media topic, public perceptions of "e-unionization" is magnified because it appears to be a "bold new frontier." Recent media reports of union activities have also shown that many of the Internet companies appear disorganized in responding to the issue, with messages that are reactive and sometimes insensitive toward their own employee's concerns.

As unions continue to target dot-coms, there are several smart employee communications approaches these companies can take that will work as well today as they did in the 20th Century:

  • Assign a Task Force. If a company is (or is likely to be) a union target, the best internal experts should assemble as needed to discuss the issues and their communications implications. To start, this should include senior representatives of Human Resources, Management and the Legal department.
  • Research and monitor. A wealth of resources is available for companies looking to respond to the issue-all on yesterday's newspages. Corporate communicators can search past news clips for insightful approaches on traditional brick-n-mortar companies who have faced potential unionization. In addition, monitoring systems should be in place to keep current with media trends in reporting this issue and to provide an early-warning system for better communications with employees.
  • Strengthen the employee-relationship structure. Somewhere along the race to secure funding and turn a profit, dot-coms may have neglected the programs necessary to maintain a thriving work environment. After compensation and benefits packages are stabilized, make sure the company's management is creating feedback vehicles to cull employee input on the company's direction. Create an awards system for star performers. Conduct employee surveys that encourage demonstrative and measurable results. Collective representation is less sought after if the company is listening to employee ideas and concerns on a regular basis.

    • This approach will be much more effective than picking fights with the union supporters - preventing unauthorized gatherings, solicitations by company e-mail or pro-union lapel buttons.
  • Campaign your employee successes. A strong corporate culture (many dot-coms do still have them, despite recent financial setbacks) could be the worst secret in a company's arsenal. Companies that trumpet their employees' triumphs and happiness create a great morale booster and wonderful inoculation against potential unionization. "This is a great place to work" is a much better tonic than "we don't need a union." Yet, some companies still fall into that trap:

    • Several recent reports reveal that some dot-coms have held several meetings to explain to workers that unions are only out for dues and will only foster distrust towards supervisors to create an uncooperative attitude. A report in InTheseTimes.com recently quoted one of these employees: "They keep trying to label the union movement as an evil outside force, when the entire movement is driven 100 percent from inside. If anyone is to blame for someone like me being out there supporting a union, it's management."
  • Prepare your rapid response. Ultimately, dot-coms will likely be held to the same standards as traditional companies in this arena. The best way to resonate with the public on this issue is to respond with a great awareness and sensitivity to employee concerns, with demonstrable examples of all the things the company is doing on the behalf of employees. As always, these messages are better when prepared in advance of any inquiry from key audiences.

About the author

James Donnelly is Vice President, Issues Management in the Issues and Crisis Management group at Ketchum in New York City, USA. He specializes in issue and crisis preparedness and response. E-Mail: james.donnelly@ketchum.com.

First published in Crisisnavigator (ISSN 1619-2400):
Volume 2 (2001) - Issue 4 (April)

Date: Tuesday, 5. July 2022 - 10:52:03 Uhr

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