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How Very Public Labor Disputes Might be Impacting Your Workforce

August 21, 2023
By Donna Fontana

From unionization efforts by Amazon and Starbucks employees to months of recent coverage on Hollywood’s WGA/SAG strikes, the Teamsters contract negotiations and an unusually public start to UAW contract negotiations, a union-centric national narrative has taken hold. As hourly workers (both union and nonunion) absorb these media and social conversations, corporations should pay close attention to their employee engagement levels.

In the most pro-union environment in decades, support for the hourly workforce follows the national focus on well-being and equity. Add to that the shift in power from employer to employee as companies struggle to fill positions, and you have trending topics that are about much more than wages and benefits for a particular company’s rank and file. Today’s conversation is about fair play, respect and dignity for the workforce.

It’s a topic that impacts a much wider circle of companies beyond those involved with or directly impacted by union contract negotiations. It threatens to widen the gap between workers and management. Whether your hourly workforce is under 10 or over 10,000, those employees are part of the conversation: on TikTok, social media groups or Glassdoor reviews. Your workforce—and its collective satisfaction—is the core of your reputation, and taking a hands-off approach can put any organization in a perilous position. Management’s messages and actions during a potentially charged environment will speak volumes about its attitude toward and support of its workforce.

At FleishmanHillard, our counsel is to take nothing for granted. When employees are flooded with outside points of view, it’s critical for leaders to assess what the workforce is being impacted by—both internally and externally—and how they can authentically address concerns. The employee engagement principles below are a good place to start.

How to Keep Employees Engaged

  • Keep listening. There’s a real danger to assuming what the workforce thinks/feels/believes. Use a variety of approaches—1:1 meetings, group discussions, surveys, advisory groups, diagonally slice meetings— to get input from all levels and a realistic picture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Assess what’s working. Revisit current communications channels, employee events, Employee Resource Groups or other workforce committees to identify if employees are effectively receiving information, building communities and providing feedback.
  • Make managers integral to success. Ensure they are well-equipped with information and training to communicate with their teams and shepherd feedback.
  • Maintain a people-first, empathetic approach. The steady coverage on strikes and workers’ rights can be both exhilarating and exhausting for a workforce. Remember the importance of humanity in communications and actions.

Maintaining a positive, respectful work environment requires commitment to listening and following through on what you hear. It’s about regularly, and authentically, demonstrating a thoughtful approach to a future of shared success.

The workforce has changed. There’s a new generation with its own perspective on work-life balance. There’s an increased demand for transparency and equity. There are more communication channels to share ideas and points of view. Leadership’s ability to embrace this evolution will play a big role in an organization’s success as an employer of choice.

Donna Fontana is the global Manufacturing practice lead for FleishmanHillard.