In a follow-up to last week’s article about contingent workforces garnering more attention from unions, this week’s article highlights ways contingent workforce program managers can help prevent a possible unionization push at their organization — and how to respond should such activity occur. Unlike many other worker management responsibilities and challenges, leading through such an effort is not an intuitive process; however, here are some things to keep in mind to help you navigate it.

Open Communication

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to worker unrest, and both on-staff employees and contingent workers need to feel that their voices are being heard — and also valued — in the workplace. As contingents become attractive targets for union organizers, CW managers must take on some of the same roles that managers of the organization’s direct employees do.

Contingents must trust that a direct relationship with their manager and their employer is in their best interest, says Kevin Terry, partner at law firm Michael Best & Friedrich LLP.

“What the contingent workforce managers can think about from a proactive step is really just kind of a best practice for management in general,” Terry says. “It’s to keep open lines of communication. It’s to do a good job identifying frustrations that their own contingent workforce has and trying to solve for that directly.”

Spot potential issues with contingents and solve them before frustration bleeds into the rest of the organization’s employees and prompts a search for a union to fight on their behalf. And if such union activity is occurring, it is rarely going to take place out in the open, explains Steven Bernstein, partner and co-chair of law firm Fisher Phillips’ labor relations practice.

“It’s usually activity that’s driven underground,” Bernstein says. “Oftentimes, unions instruct their organizers to keep things quiet and will actually intimidate employees into believing that if it’s out in the open, they’ll be subject to discipline. This is rarely the case and would typically be unlawful if it’s motivated by anti-union sentiment, but it does drive the activity underground.”

Hence, CW managers will typically have to look for more subtle things that tend to revolve around changes in the way employees behave in the workplace, changes in the questions that are coming up, changes in their interaction with supervisors/managers and unique questions or comments arising from the floor, according to Bernstein.

“But generally, a sense of conflict more than cooperation on the floor is something we often see when there’s organizing going on,” he says.

Supervisor Training

Lower-level managers and line supervisors often focus on just getting the job done for the day with the resources that they have available to them, which can result in asking the contingents to do tasks outside of their contracts. And that can be problematic.

“We’re creating a situation where the lines of distinction between the roles and the responsibilities of employees and the contingent workforce are blurred,” Terry says. “How they are managed and how they are directed becomes blurred.”

CW managers should train such supervisors and make sure they follow the agreed-upon guideposts for their contingent workforce and separate expectations for them from the work assignments of staff employees.

“It’s a hard job, and it’s easier said than done at times,” Terry says. “But that’s what they really need to be mindful of when we think about avoiding our contingent workforce from becoming viewed as the same as employees of the employer.”

Fairness and Respect

The pandemic caused a huge disruption in the workforce, and unions are figuring out how to leverage that uncertainty and frustration. They aim to tap a renewed sympathetic and encouraging view of unions, especially among younger workers, as well as President Biden’s supportive administration to achieve a long-term goal of expanding membership throughout the country.

So, especially now, it is important for CW managers to encourage direct supervisors to spend extra time not only managing the production and operation of their employees but also treating them with dignity and respect as people. Listen to and acknowledge their concerns, communicating clearly what changes can and cannot be made and the reasons why.

“At the end of the day, what employees expect more often than not from their employers is fairness and fair treatment,” Bernstein says. “And sometimes it’s important for the entire business community to keep that in mind.”