The early part of the Clinton administration was a heady time for the Service Employees International Union.

At its office workers division convention in June, union president John Sweeney proclaimed that organizing efforts would be launched in such industries as banking, publishing, insurance, and education.

The office workers' District 925. a nationwide local, was already up to 200,000 clerical, technical, professional, educational, and other office employees.

Organizers in Power

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Clinton tapped Geri Palast, the former head of the union's politics and legislation department, as an assistant secretary of labor, and Tom Glynn, a former hospital organizer for the union in New England, as the No. 2 man at the Labor Department.

David Wilhelm, who formerly worked with the union at Citizens for Tax Justice, is the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Karen Nussbaum, president of the union's District 925 and executive director of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, has been chosen to head the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau.

Service Employees International Union has plans "to sweep through the country," one of its local presidents said recently. "We have a sympathetic force behind us in Washington. It is up to us to do the rest."

Can a nonunion bank or other financial company tell in advance whether it is susceptible to unionization? Our research suggests there is no pat answer - but there are some clues as to susceptibility. Let me present those factors in the form of questions often asked by executives.

Q.: In number of employees, what size facility or office is most vulnerable to unionization?

A.: In the last five years, unions won about 47% of all National Labor Relations Board elections. The unions' success rate declines as size goes up. For example, unions won 64% of elections at firms with up to 49 employees, and 38% at those with from 1,000 to 10,000 employees.

Q.: How successful are the unions in the financial industry?

A.: Unions win 56% of represention elections in finance and insurance companies. Since this is higher than the 47% National Labor Relations Board average, this is a susceptible industry.

And no area of the country seems to be immune. Even where a company wins an election, its cost is considerable. Moreover, any company victory in a union election is good only for one year, after which the union may try again.

Q.: Statistics aside, are there specific criteria for ascertaining vulnerability of the work force of a particular company, department, or branch?

A.: Watch for symptoms of low employee morale. If your customer or client complaints are higher than you like, or if productivity is unsatisfactory, you can conclude that employees are indifferent and morale is low.

Q.: What causes low morale?

A.: In the main, a basic feeling that the company (or facility manager or supervisor) does not treat workers fairly, decently, and honestly. This feeling usually has nothing to do with money.

Q.: Do computers and backoffice modernization have any effect on employee attitudes?

A.: Union organizers promise all sorts of protection against job losses from automation. When installing equipment, a bank must explain that the ultimate objective is not merely to cut costs, but to meet customer or client demands for improved services.

Wider acceptance of a bank's services should make everyone's job more secure. Whether employees accept that depends on management credibility.

Q.: We have a grievance procedure in which the supervisor handles complaints first. Those he can't take care of, he refers to department heads or vice presidents. How does this affect unionization?

A.: Many grievances arise from the frontline supervisors' arbitrary, harsh, and sometimes prejudiced conduct. And of course it is difficult for an employee to complain to the supervisor directly. In nonunion shops, few employee grievances involving supervisors ever come to managers' attention.

Q.: What about suggestion boxes?

A.: Suggestion boxes are best for production problems. For employee gripes, suggestion boxes are useless since most employees hesitate to put their names on critical complaints. Without names, it is difficult to follow up.

Q.: We try to tell employees everything we think they need to know about the state of our business, the competition, and other such matters. What is the best way to ascertain their reactions and basic attitudes?

A.: "Telling" is one-way communication. For maintenance of nonunion status in a white-collar venue, there should be periodic interviews with representative employees in structured groups. Consultants are often brought in to institute such systems.

Q.: We try to monitor wage levels at comparable organizations, and sometimes we fall short, causing us some embarrassment. How vulnerable does that make us?

A.: Contrary to what many executives think, high wage rates do not produce labor-management harmony. Wage rates can be an excuse for wanting a union, but what makes employees boil often has little to do with money.

It is more the feeling that they are not being treated fairly and decently. Sources of discontent may include unpleasant eating areas; parking lots that are crowded or where executives have privileged spots; faulty equipment; inequitable pay scales; uneven distribution of overtime, or an uncommunicative or distant management.

That wages are not the major motivating force can be seen in the case of utility companies, which pay high average wage rates yet have the second-highest percentage of union election victories.

There is only one technique for uncovering union susceptibilities: Listen to employees. (For articles on this and related topics, such as "What Your Employees Can Tell You" in the April 1989 Appliance Magazine, write to Matthew Goodfellow, University Research Center, Box 494, Chicago, Ill. 60690-0494, fax 708-733-0074.)

In a report on its own labor interviewing Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. made a good suggestion: Use an impartial outside expert. "This brings in special skills and experience which assure employees that no reprisals will follow any uncomplimentary remarks. Such a friendly beginning can be transferred to company personnel as the program progresses."

Listening to employees has benefits besides avoiding unions. It brings to management's attention anything that is preventing employees from achieving company or departmental goals. The process can improve productivity and quality, eliminate customer complaints, and reduce absenteeism.

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