How companies are using predictive analytics to get ahead of union campaigns


Striketober may be over, but the private sector’s strained relationship with unions never seems to end. As the labor shortage persists, employees will continue to seek leverage in a variety of ways, from ending forced arbitration to organizing walkouts to forming a union.

The prospect of an employee organization sends many CEOs into a darker predicament than our sanity when daylight saving time begins (reminder: the sun will set over parts of the east coast at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday). But Joseph Brock, a former union president turned labor relations consultant, says the prospect of an organizing campaign is “the best thing that can happen to a business.” He argues that union forces are forcing companies to form.

“The threat is good, because when an employer escapes an organizing campaign by the seat of their pants, a lot of them implement changes in the workplace,” explained Brock.

Brock is one of the many consultants — some of whom charge as much as $ 10,000 a day — who persuade employees that unionization is not worth it.

Increasingly, these consultants rely on high-tech methods to identify priority targets. But union organizers say campaigns run by consultants are often riddled with misinformation and make it nearly impossible for workers to organize successfully.

Celestial eyes and heat maps

Some companies apply advanced data analytics to predict which facilities, teams, and individuals are perceived to be most at risk of unionizing; they then send consultants, like Brock, on site to persuade those employees that management, not the union, has their best interests in mind.

This can include a new high-tech version of what is often referred to as a ‘trade union vulnerability assessment’, which is usually based on collecting employment data and surveys to inform management of sympathies. unions possible without notifying the employees. Other examples:

  • Cluster analysis, called an “Eye in the Sky” analysis by a company, which alerts employers to union campaigns in the immediate geographic area, under the theory that union activity “occurs in clusters”.
  • Heat maps based on predictive analytics that flag high risk locations in red. The underlying models can be advanced: It appears that Amazon-owned Whole Foods used more than two dozen variables, including sales performance, employee ‘diversity index’, and member satisfaction. team to create a store-level unionization risk score. In some cases, vendors like Perceptyx use a similar approach to dig even deeper and create a vulnerability score for each employee.
  • Personality Cues can use data from pre-employment assessments to rank employee attitudes toward reporting inappropriate behavior by coworkers to management or discussing workplace concerns with supervisors.
  • Monitoring of workplace behaviors by employees can alert the management of the organization. Google reportedly automatically notified management of any scheduled internal meeting with 100 or more employees, in part to eliminate the potential employee organization.

“I made these heat maps,” labor relations consultant Matt Antonek told HR Brew. “As a field, we’re so focused on metrics: we have metrics for store performance, revenue, seniority of directors, everything. If you put it all together and weigh it appropriately, you will have a good idea of ​​whether the store is healthy or unhealthy. If it’s unhealthy, you might say, “Wow, we’ve got to get together and find out what’s going on, see what the employees are up to. “

BTW, is this legal?

To be clear, the national labor relations law [NLRA] of 1935 “guarantees the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activities”. Employers don’t have to make the process easy. Regarding worker monitoring, the NLRA asks whether an employer’s behavior is “out of the ordinary” in a way that would tend to “interfere with, restrict or coerce employees” into collective action.

Charlotte Garden, associate professor at Seattle University Law School and expert in labor and employment law, writes in her report “The Organization of Work in the Age of Surveillance” that “employers can continue practices adopted before employees begin to engage in concerted activity (usually union will), even if these practices subsequently have the effect of allowing the employer to observe concerted action once this one started.

John Logan, president of work and employment studies at the Lam Family College of Business in the state of San Francisco, told HR Brew that he finds this monitoring particularly worrying because employees may not know that the data are collected or how they will be used. It further notes that the Surveillance Law has not been updated for the digital age. He believes the NLRA is “totally incapable” of handling this level of sophisticated employee tracking.

“The law just didn’t follow through,” he said. “And the likelihood that this type of surveillance will one day be the subject of an unfair labor practice complaint is far and away, much lower due to the sub rosa nature of the business.”

In English? Employers have a vested interest in collecting as much data as possible about employees as early as possible: data ranging from location tracking (such as swipe cards or meeting room reservations) to internal communications on computer servers to Performance reviews and self-reported corporate culture surveys could provide relevant information that helps employers understand which employees are inclined to vote yes in a union campaign.

However, under the NLRA, employers cannot to start monitor employees (physically or digitally) once an organizing campaign is underway. Ask Boeing: They made the mistake of starting to monitor the working hours and movements of union employees after the announcement of a union campaign and were affected by an NLRB complaint in 2018.

Targeted reach

Antonek is part of the $ 340 million a year consulting industry that works to stop unions from gaining a foothold in American businesses.

The National Labor Relations Board requires employers to adhere to a standard known as “TIPS”: HR and supervisors cannot threaten, interrogate, make promises, or spy on employees for information about organizing efforts.

But predictive analytics, meant to be implemented before there is any sign of unionization, allows employers to take action to thwart an organizing effort without breaking labor laws. According to Logan, the “mountain” of data available allows America’s largest employers to conduct a “union avoidance campaign 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

Based on advanced analytics, the consultants will travel to high-risk facilities to launch a full press: they conduct education sessions on what they claim to be the risks of unionization (supervisors cut back on points discussion and organize focus groups to hear employee concerns.

“I work in a lot of manufacturing environments where there may be one HR person per shift for the entire plant, so initially it’s almost impossible to build trust,” Antonek explained. “It’s a challenge because we want people to feel comfortable showing up to management with concerns. My main suggestion is to walk on the floor. You need to take the time to say “Hello” or to talk about the football game. Ask yourself every day, “Was my comments balanced? If employees only see you walking to make corrections, they won’t trust you.

Antonek said his strategy is to improve day-to-day communication and immediately tackle the most common employee issues in the workplace. He argues that if management can address these priority issues, workers will be less inclined to seek representation. Brock said employers shouldn’t be afraid to “get ahead” of the union conversation and lead the narrative.

“Talking to your union workers is a bit like telling your kids about drugs,” Brock told HR Brew. “A lot of employers don’t do it because they are afraid to give as if by magic. [employees] the idea of ​​going to call a union. It does not happen.

What workers really want

For Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, these targeted tactics sound like an end to an already unfair fight. Although a 2017 Economic Policy Institute study found that 48% of non-union Americans would ‘join a union tomorrow’ and another 2020 Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans are in favor of unions , union membership is on the decline.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nationwide union membership in 2020 hovered around 11%; Private sector membership is currently around 6%, up from 32% in 1960, Time reported. New contracts are hard to come by: According to a study cited in MIT’s Work of the Future study, only one-seventh of organizing campaigns that cross the initial hurdle of planning an election (a threshold which in itself requires the signature of at least 30% of the workforce) enter into a collective agreement within the first year.

“As someone who has studied union campaigns for over 30 years, I sometimes think it’s amazing that workers ever succeed, because we have such a weak labor law and employers have so many tools at their disposal. provision to fight unions, ”Bronfenbrenner told HR Brew. . “But the reason workers are successful at organizing is that employers can’t give workers the reasons to organize: workers don’t organize because of wages. Workers don’t organize because of benefits. Workers are organizing for those intangible things that you can only get through the union: Workers are organizing because they want to have a voice at work. They want respect. They want dignity. And you can only get that through an independent voice [that] they go through a union.

If you are feeling brave, pass this quote on after C. We would love to hear their thoughts.—SV

Do you work in HR or do you have information about your HR department that we should know about? Contact Susanna Vogel through Signal and Telegram encrypted messaging apps (@SusannaVogel) or simply by email [email protected].

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