Unions are organizing smaller segments of an entire workforce in order to get their foot in the door and keep organizing efforts alive.  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has approved so-called micro-units, setting employers up for difficult battles over appropriate bargaining units in the future.  Employers should think about the possibility of seeing a micro-unit proposed in their workforce—and how to avoid them. 

Unions Can More Easily Win Representation For Smaller Groups 

As unions press to increase their membership in the United States, unions are looking for new ways to organize workers and remain relevant.  Organizing large workforces requires unions to expend significant resources - money, personnel and time - to collect signatures from at least 30% of the proposed bargaining unit to trigger an election (some unions want to see upwards of 70% signing authorization cards before petitioning for an election).  Then additional resources are needed to get out the vote to ensure a majority of votes cast are in favor of the union.  Large organizing campaigns also give the company time to mount an anti-union campaign. 

Organizing micro-units, however, can be done relatively quickly, cheaply and often without much response from the company.  Think about it – organizing a unit of 30 workers in a single department may need only one or two union organizers to persuade the 15 to 20 employees needed to win the organizing campaign.  Before you know it, you’ve got a segment of your workforce represented by a third party with whom you must collectively bargain.  This can lead to multiple micro-units at your company represented by different unions and the headaches multiply. 

Parameters For Micro-Units Are Evolving 

The NLRB has discretion in representation cases to determine the appropriate bargaining unit, whether an employer unit, craft unit, plant unit or subdivision thereof, pursuant to section 9(b) of the NLRA.  Although decided on a case-by-case basis, the main, long-standing factor for determining an appropriate unit was the “community of interest” of the employees involved.  In 2011, however, the Board significantly changed that analysis in a case called Specialty Healthcare, allowing the unit petitioned-for by the union to govern except in those situations where the employer can establish by “overwhelming evidence” that the requested unit is inappropriate.  This new approach places a high burden on employers who wish to challenge the make-up of the unit proposed by the union. 

In recent months, the Board has decided a couple of micro-unit cases that offer some guidance on what it takes to challenge a micro-unit.  In a case involving a Macy’s Department store in Massachusetts, the Board deemed appropriate a micro-unit made up of only cosmetics and fragrances employees at the store.  Macy’s Inc., 361 NLRB No. 4 (July 22, 2014).  The store argued that the unit was too narrow and that the appropriate unit in a retail store context is a “wall-to-wall unit”  or, alternatively, all selling employees at the store.  The Board did not agree.  It concluded that the cosmetics and fragrances employees were a readily identifiable group that shared a community of interest not shared by other store employees.  Factors weighing in favor of the micro-unit included the fact that the cosmetics and fragrances employees were in the same department and were supervised by the same managers.  In addition, there was little regular contact between the cosmetics and fragrances employees and other store employees.  The NLRB found that Macy’s had not met the high burden of showing that other employees should be included in the unit because they did not share an “overwhelming community of interest.” 

Coming to the opposite conclusion, however, the Board rejected a micro-unit of sales associates who sold shoes at the Manhattan Bergdorf Goodman store.  The union had petitioned for the unit to be made up of 35 women’s shoes sales associates in the Salon shoes department (high end designer shoes) and 11 women’s Contemporary shoes sales associates in the Contemporary Sportswear department (modestly priced shoes).  The Board concluded the proposed unit was inappropriate because the two shoe departments were located on separate floors, did not share the same supervisors and managers, did not have any cross-over or interchange between employees and did not have much contact with employees in other departments storewide.  The Neiman Marcus Group, Inc. d/b/a Bergdorf Goodman, 361 NLRB No. 11 (July 28, 2014). 

Strategies for Attacking Micro-Units 

The Macy’s and Bergdorf Goodman cases offer some guidance to help employers avoid union organizing of micro-units.  Strategies to consider now, before a union organizing campaign begins, include: 

  • Combining departments or job classifications that share skills or tasks
  • Cross-training and cross-utilizing workers across departments, classifications or locations
  • Allowing for promotional and transfer opportunities across department and organizational lines
  • Revising supervisory and managerial structures so that more employees report to the same managers
  • Maintaining pay and bonus structures common to all employees or for all in a larger unit. 

Micro-units can be a game-changer when it comes to union organizing so employers have to change their own tactics to combat such bargaining units.  Taking time now to change organizational and reporting structures can go a long way in overcoming a proposed micro-unit in the future.