In my early EMS leadership career, I worked for an organization that was swallowed up by a large national EMS consolidator. The unsettled times that occurred during, and immediately following, the acquisition, led a small group of paramedics to petition for union representation. At the time, I had not yet finished my undergraduate or law degree. My experience with leading a management team through a union campaign was non-existent. The organization hired a labor attorney to work with our team to ensure that we stayed compliant in the weeks leading up to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election.
It was an incredibly difficult time for both the leadership and the employees. Anyone who has lived through a union campaign can tell you that it can make you question the type of leader and manager you think you are. It puts an unbelievable strain upon everyone in the organization. Ultimately, the employees elected not to be represented by a union. As a team, we learned a great deal during this process. We realized that we were not the employee-centric organization that we believed we were. There is an old saying in labor relations, “every company gets the union it deserves.”
Union representation had been on the decline for several decades as numerous laws and regulations have been enacted to address many of the concerns that drove union membership. As we know, the last few years have presented incredible challenges for EMS organizations and their employees. The Biden Administration brings with it a President who has adopted a pro-union agenda and a Secretary of Labor who is a former union leader.
A recent article published by the National Law Review states that union petitions are up 57%. Nearly every day there is a story of unionization at organizations that were previously not union strongholds. Additionally, polling seems to suggest that Americans view unions far more favorably than they did just over a decade ago. Traditionally, unions used to focus on larger employers, but have recently added all employers, including those with smaller collective bargaining units.
EMS agencies are no exception to this trend on union representation. It should be no surprise to EMS leaders that several unions believe that EMS is ripe for labor organizing. I will not go into all of the reasons that EMS is the focus of labor organizations, but suffice it to say, the recent workforce challenges have made their message far more enticing to employees. Recently, an organization that I once was a part of and would not have believed was ripe for organizing, just overwhelmingly voted to be represented by a union.
The Best Strategy
If your organization is committed to remaining a non-union environment, it is critical that you make this an intentional part of your strategic plan. Generally, employees join unions because they are unhappy or dissatisfied with the relationship they have with the management team or company they work for. This is often articulated by dissatisfaction with pay and benefits, consistency in policy and procedure practices, and the day to day interactions with management. More specifically, the relationship or treatment by their immediate supervisor.
The best strategy is to be proactive. This is not something that employers can or should ignore. This must be a stated and intentional part of your organizational strategic plan. Due to the workforce shortage, most organizations have been evaluating their pay and benefits programs. However, we are not always so good at communicating these benefits to our employees. Often, we treat pay and benefits like trade secrets, even with our own folks. EMS is notorious for its rumor-mill and it is far better to control or influence the narrative regarding the benefits that your employees enjoy by working for your organization. You will be surprised how many on your team have no idea that some of your benefits exist or are available to them.
Education and communication are key elements in any union-free workplace strategy. Employers should utilize the AAA Total Compensation Statement that highlights all costs associated with pay and benefits.
The leadership team should evaluate the frequency of supervisor-employee interactions and the tools used to track these engagements. The stronger the relationship between the frontline employees and the leadership team, the less likely your employees are to invite an outside third-party to represent them. If this is not one of your organization’s leading Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or Vital Signs, it will disappear into the whirlwind of activity that consumes your team’s day.
Rules of the Road
It is important for your team to know the rules of the road as it relates to a fostering union-free strategy. The playing field is not exactly even. Unions have the right to solicit employees and make promises of increased wages, benefits, and working conditions, regardless of their ability to deliver. However, employers are far more limited in what actions they can take regarding union representation. Employers can find themselves in trouble if they fail to follow some simple rules. Here are a few TIPS to help employers stay compliant.
T - Employers cannot Threaten to discipline or reduce wages and/or benefits if their employees unionize or engage in union activity;
I - Employers cannot Interrogate employees about their activities or feelings on union representation;
P - Employers may not make Promises to employees to improve wages, benefits, or working conditions if they remain union-free;
S - Employers cannot Spy on employee’s union-related activities.
Employers are free to discuss what joining a union might mean for the employee. For example, an employer can say “if the workforce is represented by a union, the terms and conditions of employment will be subject to collective bargaining. The collective bargaining process may result in employees getting more, getting less, or the same wages and benefits that they have now.” The key is to be honest in all communications with your employees.
A Path Forward
EMS leaders should deliver a clear message to their frontline leadership team. Focus on developing strong relationships with their employees. Encourage open and frequent lines of communication, listen to employee concerns, and address them quickly. Ensure that frontline leaders have been provided training and the TIPS for maintaining a union-free work environment. Lastly, be sure to contact the AAA at email@example.com if you have questions or need assistance.