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Union-free carriers trying hard to stay that way

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
December 18, 2013

Unionized jobs in the trucking industry today are as scarce as four-leaf clovers in the desert, and the growing nonunion trucking sector says that is no accident. They work hard at it every day.

Excluding government workers, unionized representation in all industries has fallen to a 60-year low. Only 6.6 percent of all private sector workers belong to a union. In trucking, about 2 percent of all 3.5 million truck drivers are unionized.

Non-union trucking executives see the hard-fought labor battles at long-haul LTL carriers YRC Worldwide and ABF Freight System as further impetus to remain union-free, they say.

Both YRC and ABF have lost money recently. They both have had to negotiate packages of wage and benefit concessions with the Teamsters union, which reluctantly agreed to those concessions but only after a long, contentious effort by management.

Still, nonunionized carriers say they are feeling extraordinary pressures to maintain their union-free status as the Teamsters continue to spend millions of dollars on organizing efforts. Social media is being used in innovative ways to help organizing and is making it easier to organize workers rather than going terminal to terminal to get out their message.

New changes in the composition of the five-member National Labor Relations Board also are worrying some employers who fear an increase in the NLRB’s pro-labor bias.

President Barack Obama recently appointed two pro-labor NLRB members, former AFL-CIO general counsel Nancy Schiffer, and Kent Hirozawa, formerly NLRB general counsel.

Trucking management fears the NLRB may promulgate rules allowing “quickie” representation elections, which companies say are biased toward the union. Also, a renewal of the “card check” legislation, which failed in 2010, may be reintroduced next year, depending on the outcome of the 2014 mid-term elections.

In fact, unions may not even be called “unions” any more. Labor has tried to organize “worker centers,” shunning the word “union,” but acting very much like a union in any event.

But experts say the best way to stay union-free can be boiled down to two points.

“Build relationships with your employees, and get rid of your recalcitrants,” said Thomas Krukowski, a labor attorney familiar with union organizing and founding partner of Krukowski & Costello, Milwaukee. He spoke at the recent annual meeting of the North American Transportation Employee Relations Association (NATERA).

There have been more than 600 union-trucking company bankruptcies and closings since the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, eliminating more than 500,000 Teamsters from the freight industry.

Today the Teamsters have fewer than 70,000 Teamsters in the freight sector, mostly at financially ailing long-haul LTL carriers YRC Corp. and ABF Freight System.

The Teamsters’ largest employer is UPS, which has more than 260,000 Teamsters in its parcel division. That is nearly 20 percent of the 1.4 million-member union.

The only sizeable trucking company to become unionized in the last 30 years was UPS Freight (formerly Overnite Transportation), which UPS bought Overnite in 2005 for $1.2 billion. At the time, Overnite was partially organized by the Teamsters and had just endured a three year strike from 1999-2002.

David Rittof, president and CEO of Modern Management, a consulting firm that works with companies on union issues, says the Teamsters is the most active of all unions in filing petitions for representation. In the last 10 years, the Teamsters have filed 5,974 petitions, but the majority was withdrawn.
 
“They are among the least successful unions in terms of winning contracts,” Rittof said.

Then, there’s the issue of card check. That is the unions’ favored method of organizing because they don’t have to organize an entire company nationally that way. Instead, they merely have to show that a majority of workers have signed a card at a particular facility—a trucking terminal or warehouse, for example—that’s enough to become the bargaining agent at that unit.

Employers were able to beat back a card check legislation in 2010, but fear it could come up again. One can understand their concern.

Unions usually win about 45 percent of secret ballot elections. But they succeed about 78 percent of the time using card check. If a union is able to collect a majority of signed cards at a particular facility, that union automatically counts that facility as being organized. Employers hate this.

Rittof advised companies to make an honest self-assessment of vulnerability, share experiences with others, prepare a web site touting the company’s benefits of staying union-free and communicate more proactively with employees.

“Over-communicate is what you need to do,” Rittof said.

FedEx, with its 330,000 workers worldwide, is a favorite target of union organizing. Thomas Grow, senior labor counsel for FedEx Express, its air and surface express unit, said corporate campaigns “have retreated a little bit” in recent years. But it feels union pressure from other fronts, he said.
 
The Teamsters are still lobbying in Washington to get FedEx Express removed from the Railway Labor Act, which effectively means the company cannot be organized terminal by terminal, but rather on a nationwide basis.
 
The Teamsters began its “FedEx Project” in 2005, focusing on FedEx Express, Freight and Ground operating companies. “Over the last several years, we have seen almost every possible tactic,” Grow said. “You name it, we’ve seen it.”

Among the Teamsters’ tactics are hand-billing by location, card-signing, retail picketing and PR stunts, EEOC discrimination allegations, OSHA and EPA complaints, corporate board and proposal contests, shareholder resolutions, boycotts, anti-company web sites and what Grow termed “street theatre.”
 
“Not a week goes by that we don’t see some situation,” Grow said.

The growing presence of electronic social media in organizing efforts is a major threat to nonunion companies, experts say. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook can be used to publicize any pro-labor demonstration and help drive home the union’s organizing efforts through text messages, interactive blogs and increased communication.

“Text message updates have become a permanent resource for union-related information,” Grow said.

Non-union companies are facing renewed threats and new organizing strategies by Teamsters and other unions, including “corporate campaigns” designed to embarrass companies.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is staunchly non-union and has used several successful strategies to stay that way.

Jan Sturner, assistant general counsel and head of employment group for Wal-Mart and its 1.3 million workers, said his company makes more than 400,000 job offers a year. It also operates a sizeable private fleet that consists of 5,962 trucks and 7,210 drivers. Its average pay for drivers with one year experience is $72,000.

“We actually don’t lose very many drivers every year,” Sturner said, noting the majority of drivers leave because of retirement and health reasons. “We have very little driver turnover.”
 
Keeping employers engaged by “coaching by walking around” is a key defense against organizing efforts, Sturner said. He advised carriers to have an open door policy, be fair and even-handed with employees and increase employee education.
“Education works because you get feedback, and then you learn more,” Sturner said. “And you must be honest.”

Mark Spognardi, partner with Arnstein & Lehr law firm, Chicago, said “quickie” elections could be allowed within 17 to 20 days of an organizing petition. That gives employers very little time to react and would seem to favor unions, he said. He specifically warned trucking companies to pay attention to small terminals which vote for organization.

“The smaller units are the hardest (for companies) to win,” Spognardi warned.  “Once you have one unit in a shop, it ends up spreading through the organization.”


 

About the Author

image
John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.


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