Ask the Expert: Is There a Union in Your Future?

Attorney Jason Hungerford with Nilan Johnson

First there was Tattersall and then Spyhouse Coffee, Surly Brewing and Fair State Brewing Cooperative followed. 

Of the four companies that have recently made the news for employees seeking or succeeding on unionizing, only Fair State Brewing Cooperative, the first U.S. microbrewery to unionize, released a statement from the CEO praising the move.  In the midst of its employees organizing, Surly announced it was closing its brewhouse indefinitely November 1—not necessarily as a message to the workers, but many perceived it that way.

The union of choice for these four companies, Unite Here Local 17, represents more than "6,000 workers in hotels, restaurants, sports complexes, convention centers, and the airport in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and surrounding suburbs," according to its website. 

"I think what we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented time for restaurants in particular," said Attorney Jason Hungerford with Nilan Johnson. "Restaurants run on such small margins that the act of the pandemic has caused complete chaos."

And that chaos—the reopening and potential closing of restaurants, decreased hours, reduced staff, layoffs and lost income, coupled with welfare issues of being on the front lines with customers—has made workers look for safety. And what better place to find it than safety in numbers. 

"Unions offer a unified voice and a guaranteed spot at the table with the employer," Hungerford said, something you’re not always guaranteed as an individual employee. "But in terms of specifics, restaurants are a tough market, the pie is a certain size and bringing in the union doesn’t increase the pie. The small margins make restaurants hard to operate a union successfully."

While there are some positives to a union for restaurant owners, one downside is that if there’s a grievance, the employer has more hoops to jump through and loses the ability to work with the employee individually to settle things quickly. 

"Restaurants operate as a family," he said. The idea is to take care of each other, and "you lose that when a union comes in."

So how do you handle a situation where your employees are talking to union organizers?

"Now’s the time to act, the more unionization there is, the more you’re talking to labor reps," he said. "If you have a union coming in, you can’t make promises to have your employees stop; you can’t say we’ll raise your wages if you don’t join a union."

Hungerford suggests setting up channels for open communication. Managers should be available to talk to employees about their concerns and to provide solutions, and get back quickly to employees for questions they didn’t have immediate answers to. Employees want to be heard, so you can’t just listen and do nothing about their concerns. Training on effective listening skills is not money wasted.

What you can do is talk up your business and let employees know they have a great place to work, but you can’t make promises, threaten or interrogate employees. Remind them that their dues come out of their paycheck, he suggests.


How it works

"Unions have to get authorization cards, a piece of paper that says, ‘I would like to have a vote on  my workplace having a union,'" Hungerford said. Once 30 percent of the employees sign the card, they are sent to the national relations board to hold an election. The union contacts the workplace and then there’s a campaign time for both sides to lobby for their positions, he said. 

Before it gets to this point, it would be a good time to contact an employment (labor law) lawyer to know your rights.

Another problem that arises is that if 51 percent of the workers vote for a union, that means the other 49 percent who didn’t agree, also have to join. 

For restaurants, especially those with small staffs, the risk isn’t great. Servers and bartenders in Minnesota are paid better than in states with tip credits and both St. Paul and Minneapolis have higher wages than other places in the state, he said.

But restaurant owners need to be aware, that looking at unions isn’t a "wage-grab," it’s a sign of the need for stability in an unstable world right now. 

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