The Employee Free Choice Act: Hanging on for dear life.

31 January 2011

In a little noticed piece in IndustryWeek magazine, editor-in-chief Steve Minter reminds us that the Holy Grail of organized labor is not dead. Not yet.

Minter is particularly poignant IMHO in the very last line of his piece when he paraphrases advice from another labor attorney, urging employers to:

develop a plan now for dealing with a possible unionizing campaign and to take traditional measures to promote job satisfaction such as keeping lines of communication with employees open…

Here’s the thing…the Employee Free Choice Act – or at least the concept of it – is too precious for labor to let it die for a lack of interest. The president promised he would deliver this to labor. The Congress, with a bi-partisan plurality, has said “no thanks” but the White House controls the National Labor Relations Board. An interesting test may very well be the attempt by the UAW to organize the non-union transplant manufactures (like Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and others). But the risk to non-union companies is still out there and they ought to heed Minter’s advice.

Union membership hits a new low

24 January 2011

On the eve of President Obama’s first State of the Union Address following the mid-term election, the pundits tell us that the president will talk principally about jobsandcompetitiveness. Perhaps it is auspicious that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has just reported that the number of union members reached an all time low in 2010. According to the Bureau, union members had slipped to 11.9%, the lowest level since 1940.

The confluence of this story and President Obama’s message Tuesday night cannot be lost on union leadership. The President is going to be making economic competitiveness a centerpiece of his address. The union movement in the United States has made US manufacturing decidedly un-competitive.

Barry Hirsch, an economist at the Georgia State University told the New York Times that:

“while [union companies] often raise productivity, typically they’re at a cost disadvantage, and unionized companies haven’t fared as well,” he said. “In addition, in an increasingly globalized, very fast-moving world, unionized companies may not be able to adjust as quickly.”

Union leaders will be listening closely to Mr. Obama on Tuesday night. They are the same constituency that worked so hard to get him elected and hoped that he would deliver their promised card check legislation in the first year of his presidency. There was no card check bill in 2009 or 2010. The union’s foes won a majority in the House and increased their numbers in the Senate and at a pivotal national address, their president will be talking about making America more competitive.

Where, pray tell, does that leave the union movement in the United States?

A Perspective from Aspen

26 July 2010

Aspen is a perfect place to gain perspective.

The city sits 8,000 feet above sea level, and the views from the valley and the surrounding peaks are literally breath-taking. The pace is relaxed, and yet residents and visitors alike seem genuinely interested in exploration – the kind of exploration that exhausts you physically and mentally in a really good way.

I went to Aspen this past weekend to represent Hill & Knowlton and our clients at Fortune’s Brainstorm TECH. I went hoping to meet new people, learn more about our industry, and do right by the people who’d sent me. (I also hoped to have a little time to relax with my husband, who tagged along.)

What I gained, far beyond expectation, was perspective. I emerged with a renewed sense of appreciation for how small the world is, how fulfilling personal connections are, and how much the success of any venture depends on deep collaboration. 

Fortune’s line-up at this year’s event was impressive. It opened with heavyweight executives who have brokered some of the most significant mergers in the past year. It closed with two senior Administration officials who delivered appropriate calls to action for the global technology community.

Chief executives offered stand-out 1:1s characterized by personal experiences and thought-provoking predictions.  High-profile deal makers and angel investors provided an interesting take on the investments worth making. All three days featured demos of new technologies and previews of companies that will matter in three years. There were compelling discussions featuring senior panelists, passionate moderators and enthusiastic attendees who were there to – well – brainstorm ideas to address the countless possibilities that face us in the near-term. Key observations can be found here on the Brainstorm blog site.

See? Exhausting in a good way. That’s what I’m talking about.

But to me, the real perspective came in the discoveries made in between these sessions. I had a wonderful chat with a Silicon Valley CMO and discovered that she knows my cousin from their shared tenure at IBM. Over dinner, I sat next to a CIO who lives near me in Marin County. I shook the hands of editors and executives whom I had either known only virtually or whom I had wanted to meet for some time. An account manager at Time Inc. remembered me from an event two years ago and asked about my children, whose ages she even recalled. Out of our daily context, I learned more about my clients as people, bumping into them in the streets of Aspen and meeting their spouses. Oh, and I also got to share a bike ride, a gondola ride and two quiet dinners with my husband.

Over the course of these three wonderful days, I was reminded that we all seek connection. We thrive when we can share ideas, validate and challenge each other, and learn from one another. We want to know that the work we do matters, and we want to find ways to stay inspired so that our work will continue to matter.

Bottom line, this trip reinforced for me the amazing power of playing in traffic. As communicators, we need to remove ourselves from our routines and familiar environments. We need to challenge ourselves more often to explore and discover. Because even if we don’t show up to an event like Brainstorm TECH with a specific agenda, we will definitely emerge with one.

Two tiers of knowledge = a weakened democracy

07 July 2010

Benjamin Franklin knew the importance of information to a free society. And he knew that a good newspaper was good business. One of our eldest Founding Fathers published The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette as one of the early newspapers in the English colonies. He didn’t give it away, that is for sure.

I’ve wondered how long the news content guys were going to be able to sustain the free online model. It just doesn’t make sense. The Economist published a great piece recently entitled “Media’s two tribes” contrasting the two approaches. At least for the foreseeable future, it would seen that the web we still be a place where you can find news for free. But the deeper and richer news will increasingly migrate to a paid model. That’s what worries me.

Franklin was right, a free society depends on an informed populous. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not making a case for everything for free on the internet. What I worry about is whether we’ll begin to have one class of citizens who read only free content and think they’re well-informed, while another class of citizens pays a little to be better informed. That would have a potentially adverse impact on the democracy.

We already have too many people voting with nearly zero information on the candidates and the issues. But that is not for a lack of access to the information. It is simple ignorance. When we normalize a higher threshold of access to quality news online, we will almost certainly exacerbate an already troubling problem. And in our business, we will need to think differently about how we help our clients. How will we reach audiences who may not buy the channels of news that are viable to reach them today? On some level, that seems like an easier hill to climb.

If Franklin and his contemporaries were correct, will the evolving model of two tiers of news have the impact on the democracy that I fear? Time will tell.

Limits on the NLRB? Just barely

28 June 2010

The Supreme Court of the United States dealt a rebuke to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in a decision handed down earlier this month in the case of New Process Steel v the NLRB.

The case seems so obvious, it is a bit surprising that it didn’t come earlier. The decision invalidates over 500 decisions made by the board when only two members were sitting. In very plain English, the controlling statute 29 U.S.C. § 153(b) provides that “three members of the Board shall, at all times, constitute a quorum of the Board.” So two isn’t a quorum and that was the issue before the Court. Two of those two-member decisions involved New Process Steel, who objected to the board acting as a panel of two and pressed their case to the Supreme Court. They won and the 500 decisions are effectively tossed.

Interestingly, retiring liberal Justice John Paul Stevens joined Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito to form the majority. Justice Stevens actually wrote the majority opinion while the moderate-conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the dissenting opinion for himself and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Talk about strange bedfellows… 

What does any of this mean to our clients? Not much, really. The board currently has four members, three who lean toward organized labor and one who leans toward employers. That last one, Peter Schaumber, will see his term expire in August, leaving three pro-labor members, two of whom are unabashed activists and who don’t believe that it is necessary for Congress to legislate labor policy. So stay tuned, things are about to get very interesting.

Change is coming

07 June 2010

Less than two weeks after his inauguration, President Obama signed Executive Order 13496 that required federal government contractors and subcontractors to post notices in their workplaces that informed employees of their rights to organize and bargain collectively and engage in other protected activity as provided for in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). That requirement will go into effect in the coming weeks on June 19.

This notice requirement requires the particular employers to post an employee notice, prescribed by the Department of Labor (DOL).  A copy of a flyer with the required language is available on the DOL website.

The notice is intended to inform employees that they have the right to organize a union, bargain collectively for wages, benefits, hours, and other working conditions. The flyer must also describe the rights to strike and picket the employer and then goes even further; it must describe specific conduct that the employer might engage in that is illegal under the NLRA. That list is long and specific and will almost surely have a chilling effect in some workplaces.

In furtherance of the time-honored axiom, “elections have consequences,” President Obama’s Executive Order specifically revoked an earlier Executive Order 13201 signed by President Bush one month after his inauguration in February of 2001. Among other things, President Bush’s order required the same employers to inform employees that they were “…not required to join a union or maintain membership in a union in order to retain their jobs.”

Here’s the other beauty of this: President Bush’s Executive Order 13201 revoked an Executive Order signed by President Clinton just after he took office, and that one revoked an earlier one signed by the first President Bush. I didn’t follow the ping-pong game back any further but you get the drift.

As we have suspected from the President’s own words as well as the statements of his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, the Administration is taking some unorthodox routes to create a different environment for labor organizing specifically and labor management relations generally. We would be well-advised to be talking to our clients about the implications that any of this may have on their business and their relationship with their people. Communication in this environment may never have been more consequential.

It ain’t your dad’s media anymore

26 April 2010

I really like this story about the change in traditional media. Bloomberg has swallowed up Businessweek and The New York Times has a great report on how it’s going.

It is an important story, to be sure. It is also classic, navel-gazing. The media love to report on themselves and it is insightful for those of us in the business. I’m not sure that it is worth much to most readers of the NYT.

Will Bloomberg with Businessweek inside be more competitive? Will they be more relevant? Will they be faster or more objective in reporting the news? I didn’t read anything in the piece that makes me believe that there is an understanding of what is driving the traditional media model into obscurity. That said, Stephanie Clifford does a nice job with the piece (as it was presumably intended) and for that, I had a good morning read.

Headlines matter. At least they used to.

06 April 2010

I’ve been troubled by the reports of racial epithets being shouted at members of Congress on their way to the capitol to cast a vote on the Democrat’s health reform legislation that passed last month. We’ve all heard it – the allegation is that racial invectives were shouted at members of the Congressional Black Caucus by opponents of the health care bill. It is a troubling thought that something like that could happen in America in 2010.

It is even more troubling if it isn’t true.

I’m interested in the issue substantially, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll confine myself to the way the media has reported the story.

I’ve seen the video tape of Congressman Cleaver and Congressman Lewis and others amid the ruckus of the protests as they walked into the capitol before the health reform vote. You couldn’t make out any of the words being exchanged so the taped footage that the networks and cable stations have shown is inconclusive. Interestingly, I also saw that Congressman Jackson had two video cameras with him as walked the same route but he hasn’t shared what is or isn’t happening on his footage.

No one – not the members about whom the allegations have been made, or any of the police officers present, or anyone else with a video or audio recorder – has produced any evidence that anyone yelled racial invectives at anyone else. So what we have been left with is reporters reporting what some people have told others, as well as what other reporters are reporting.

I’m not sure I’m convinced that we have a good example of quality journalism here. With so much potential evidence, why haven’t we seen any direct substantiation of the allegations? And amid questions like these, why aren’t the members reportedly at the center of this issue stepping up to explain why we aren’t able to see or hear the offending remarks on any of the tape that we’ve seen replayed over and over?

If journalists cannot substantiate such incendiary claims, should they be reporting them? And if the Washington Post reports a story like this without evidence of the allegations is it right for the Miami Herald or NBC News to report that the Washington Post has reported something outrageous (without challenging the absence of supporting evidence)?

What is happening to journalism? It is the only commercial enterprise to receive specific constitutional license. Do we have a problem? I’d say we have a huge problem…

New board. New controversy? There is No Doubt.

30 March 2010

This week the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) officially starts the Era of Obama, with the President’s recess appointments of two new members to the board, Craig Becker and Mark Pearce.

First of all, none of the members of the NLRB are in the band No Doubt but the picture works so that’s that.

A bit of background if you’re new to the topic. The NLRB was created by the National Labor Relations Act when it passed in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The board consists of five members appointed by the president and normally confirmed by the Senate. By tradition, the board is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans and the chair is selected by the president. So a full, five-member board contains three members of the president’s party and two of the opposition.

Becker and Pearce join Peter Schaumber and Wilma Liebman. Liebman was made chair of the board by President Obama on January 20, 2009 shortly after he was sworn in as President of the United States. Both Schaumber and Liebman are attorneys and former labor arbitrators with deep experience in resolving labor disputes. Liebman was originally appointed by President Clinton in 1997 and reappointed by President Bush in 2002. Schaumber was appointed by President Bush in 2005. Both were confirmed by the Senate.

With these two recess appointments, the NLRB now has a 3-1 pro-labor composition with one vacancy still remaining. In the absence of another Republican nominee when Schaumber’s term expires in August, the NLRB will be comprised entirely of former union-side labor attorneys.

Last month the Senate rejected the nomination of Becker in a bipartisan vote of 52 to 43. Then last week, all 41 Senate Republicans wrote to President Obama urging him not to use a recess appointment to place Becker on the board over the objection of the Senate. This week, with the congress adjourned, the President did just that; he placed Becker on the board in spite of his rejection by the full Senate and over the appeal of the Senate minority. Bold? That is one word for it.

Becker is a controversial appointment because he was the associate general counsel to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who appear frequently before the board. In his capacity as the union’s lawyer he has been an aggressive pro-labor activist as you would expect. The SEIU has had some very serious leadership problems in the last two years complete with internal battles for control of the union and allegations of financial impropriety. SEIU president Andy Stern is very close to the President and has been the White House’s most frequent guest since the Obama’s moved in last year. During Becker’s tenure with the union, the SEIU was linked to the now-tainted ACORN organization who will likely file for bankruptcy according to most observers and news reports.

In sum, Becker is not the typical appointment to fill a seat on the NLRB. Particularly as a recess appointment over the objection of the Senate. The NLRB is typically less demagogic and more technocratic in its composition, the intentional partisan divisions notwithstanding.

Becker’s confirmation hearings also drew scrutiny for an article he published in the Minnesota Law Review in 1993. Becker’s thesis in that piece was that employers do not have an interest in the outcome of union elections. The implication is that the legal protection afforded to employer speech during union organizing campaigns is misplaced. With his appointment to the board then, those protections may be lost and that should be of interest to every employer. Becker’s position on employer speech puts him far to the left of the current law, but as we know, the rules governing union organizing ebb and flow like the tides.

None of this should change the way anyone communicates during a union organizing campaign or contract bargaining. Companies that we represent will continue to be honest and forthright in the way they engage their employees and other stakeholders. They should work to earn the credibility and respect as the preferred source of information and they should take care to respect the law and the interests of their people, their customers and the communities in which they work.

So, the lingering question is whether the NLRB’s Era of Obama will bring more challenges to our employer-clients, more political controversy and more labor drama? In my view, there is No Doubt.

How smart leaders communicate

16 March 2010

How do leaders engage their audiences on difficult topics in uncomfortable times? Mostly, they don’t. They avoid risk so that reward eludes them.

I came across this piece in the McKinsey Quarterly – an interview with Cathie Lesjak, the chief financial officer at HP – and I was immediately struck. This is how smart leaders communicate. We are increasingly challenged to think outside the box and beyond the norms in counseling our clients. Times are tough and markets and economies are still hip deep in a quagmire of economic difficulty and uncertainty: that is a perfect storm for leaders in the c-suite. It is hard enough to find and satisfy customers. It is hard enough to manage the supply chain and manage investors. Then, here comes the communication department, asking the operating leaders to remain engaged in the story telling, the reputation program, the brand-building. All too often, leaders see a challenging environment and pass on external communication. Too much risk, they will say. I don’t want to be part of tomorrow’s bad news headline. That’s because too often, the proposition is media. Or at least traditional media. That’s what struck me about this piece on Cathie Lesjak. It didn’t run in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It was published in the McKinsey Quarterly.

The headline would have been alarming had it appeared on the front page of the New York Times business section. “Thinking longer term during a crisis: An interview with HP’s CFO” But it didn’t run in the New York Times.

Giving a leader like Lesjak a forum like this is smart communication. It gives thoughtful and intelligent play to important ideas and it will be read by the people who matter to Lesjak and HP. When we think of the brand and the reputation of our clients, we have to start with the audiences that matter.

Hat’s off to Cathie Lesjak and her team for saying what needed to be said, where it needed to be said, and to whom. And check out this piece in the McKinsey Quarterly.