'Union Avoidance:' Management's New Industrial Relations Strategy

By Chalykoff, John; Cappelli, Peter | Monthly Labor Review, April 1986 | Go to article overview

'Union Avoidance:' Management's New Industrial Relations Strategy


Chalykoff, John, Cappelli, Peter, Monthly Labor Review


'Union avoidance:' management's new industrial relations strategy As industrial relations in the United States continue to experience rapid change even as the economy improves, it is becoming clear that market pressures are not the only forces driving these changes. In particular, the growing variance in labor practices within industries suggests the need to look not only at pressures from the environment, but also at the different strategies and tactics introduced by the parties at the firm level. Many argue that the most important of these currently operate from the management side.

The most important of management strategies may be the decision to try to avoid unions altogether. One of the more controversial of such efforts is the use of aggressive campaigns in representational elections. These often include management unfair labor practices which, as Paul Weiler pointed out in 1983, have increased fivefold since the 1950's. The upward trend in management unfair labor practices parallels quite closely the decline in public support for unions over this period.

In many ways, the more desirable strategy for management would be to avoid representational campaigns altogether. What such strategies have in common is an effort to move production away from current areas of union strength which may make it possible to avoid dealing with unions at all.

Explaining union avoidance

What factors cause firms to pursue strategies which lead to the avoidance of unions? A unique survey of management industrial relations practices conducted by The Conference Board in 1977 and 1983 may help answer that question. The survey asked about a range of organizational characteristics, labor relations practices, and bargaining outcomes in unionized firms. It also asked directly about the priority given to "union avoidance" strategies; is it a higher priority than achieving favorable outcomes in collective bargaining ("best bargain" strategies)? The following tabulation shows the breakdown of responses for the 228 unionized firms answering in both 1977 and 1983:

As one might expect, the priority shifts toward union avoidance in 1983. Looking at those firms whose positions were consistent in both years (56 union avoidance firms, 111 best bargain firms), several factors seem to explain their decision. One factor concerns the ability of unions to counter union avoidance strategies. The United Auto Workers, for example, got General Motors to agree to be neutral in representational campaigns in its southern plants, and recently secured agreements to limit subcontracting; airline and trucking unions have secured restrictions on double-breasted operations.

The statistical association between three variables--percent of a firm's work force organized, plant-by-plant bargaining structure, and number of new establishments opened since 1975--and the priority attached to union avoidance for firms whose strategy was the same in 1978 and 1983 suggests that the association is strong, especially with the percent of the firm's work force organized. …

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