Seyfarth Synopsis: Although many employers may think they can let their guard down a little bit when it comes to the NLRB under the Trump Administration, history suggests otherwise. During the last Republican Administration, labor unions often decided to wage their battles outside the NLRB, using tactics like the “corporate campaign.” Although corporate campaigns have been around for a long time and continued even during the Obama Administration, union corporate campaign activity during the Bush Administration suggests that employers would be well advised to implement strategies aimed at reducing their vulnerability to such campaigns and effectively responding to such campaigns in the event they become a target.

When the NLRB shifts from Democrat control to Republican control, as it has under the Trump Administration, many employers rejoice, believing that a Republican-controlled NLRB will take a more employer-friendly approach. This is almost certainly true, but employers should keep in mind that appeals to NLRB intervention are not the only ways for unions to create incredible headaches for employers.

Background on Corporate Campaigns

A corporate campaign is an attack by a union on a company or an industry with the goal of putting so much pressure on the target that it will give in to the union’s demands. Such attacks are multi-pronged and often long-running. Indeed, unions have devoted millions of dollars and multiple years to individual corporate campaigns, and such campaigns have become more sophisticated and coordinated over the years. The typical union philosophy in launching such a campaign is to cost an employer so much time and money and cause it so much disruption that it ultimately gives in to what the union wants.

A corporate campaign’s most common objective is to facilitate union organizing, often by coercing an employer into accepting a card-check agreement along with neutrality commitments (in other words, to agree to recognize the union without a formal election and to stay silent on its views regarding the unionization of its workforce). Corporate campaigns are widely known as a means of organizing workers by disorganizing companies.

In launching a corporate campaign, a union identifies and then exploits a company’s perceived vulnerabilities. Common tactics unions employ in corporate campaigns include:

  • Filing a stream of unfair labor practice charges against the company
  • Encouraging investigations of potential OSHA, wage and hour, environmental, and/or antitrust violations by the company (see our recent management alert regarding antitrust enforcement against employers here)
  • Causing union-paid organizers to get jobs within the company (known as “salting”)
  • Placing print, digital, radio, and/or TV ads attacking the company, establishing anti-company websites, and distributing anti-company materials (including emails and social media messages) to customers, shareholders, and employees
  • Introducing shareholder resolutions aimed at reducing management’s independence
  • Challenging the zoning or permitting of new company facilities
  • Alleging or implying sexual misconduct by company executives or claiming that the company does not pay its employees fairly (the #metoo and #timesup movements are likely to add more fuel to any such fire)
  • Recruiting celebrities, politicians, clergy, and other community leaders to put pressure on the company

A variety of unions have launched a multitude of corporate campaigns over the years, and they often team up with each other and pool their resources against a single company. Collectively, unions employ hundreds of professional corporate campaigners, with job titles such as “online advocacy organizer” and “strategic communications specialist.” The typical position postings for such jobs list responsibilities that include developing campaign strategies and messages, conducting online research, and executing effective media plans. Given the growing presence of Millennials in the workforce, a group that (broadly speaking) considers itself both technologically savvy and socially conscious, unions are likely to have no shortage of candidates for such positions.

What Employers Can Do

Companies of all sizes, in all locations, and in all industries are potentially vulnerable to corporate campaigns. Of course, the larger the company, the more attractive that company may be as a target, as more employees equals more potential revenue from union dues. In reality, however, almost no relatively large company is safe from such an attack.

Given the power of the internet and the ubiquity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, the speed with which unions can launch and carry out sophisticated and well-coordinated corporate campaigns is nothing short of astounding. Employers would be well-advised to proactively develop strategies aimed at reducing their vulnerability to such campaigns and quickly and effectively responding to such campaigns. Such strategies could include:

  • Conducting OSHA, wage and hour, and antitrust compliance audits
  • Engaging in positive employee relations training and messaging
  • Conducting up-to-date anti-harassment training
  • Evaluating pay equity within the company
  • Creating an effective internal and external communication system in relation to potential and actual union activity
  • Assembling a dedicated team of inside or outside counsel to respond to filings at the NLRB, such as unfair labor practice charges and representation petitions