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MAY 17, 2000


The Anti-Organizer

Dallas lawyer Jim Karger says small companies can avoid unions by taking their issues to heart

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Big labor is an issue just for big business, right? Wrong. The overwhelming majority of union organizing occurs at companies with fewer than 100 employees, says the National Labor Relations Board.

Just ask Jim Karger. The Dallas lawyer, who specializes in fending off organizing drives, says small companies bring trouble on themselves through their own bad management of people. His advice: Make employees so content they won't want to organize. Karger has been involved in more than 80 organizing battles in 25 years, mostly at small companies--and he hasn't lost one yet. Karger spoke recently with reporter Bob Deitz. Some edited excerpts:

Q: Why are small businesses so vulnerable to union organizers?
A:
Eighty percent of all organizing occurs in businesses with fewer than 100 employees. That speaks for itself. Plus, small businesses usually don't have the resources or experience that larger businesses have in dealing with unions.

Q: What should entrepreneurs do to avoid a union drive?
A:
Managers must become mother, father, brother, sister, pastor, and psychiatrist for those who look to them to make their work meaningful. This requires a commitment by the company to develop a degree of sensitivity among managers that usually isn't present. How many managers know the names of their employees' spouses and children? Their interests? Their accomplishments? Without this, the company rests its entire future on the competitiveness of its wages and traditional benefits. But there will always be other companies that provide new, different, or better economic packages. The real question then becomes, "Who out there really cares about me?"

Q: What about issues like sexism, racism, ageism?
A:
The absence of diversity opens many small high-tech operations to criticism. Unions have learned that the bread-and-butter issues, such as wages and benefits, are not winners. So they now focus on fairness, justice, equality, and other intangible concepts that have emotional appeal to those people who believe they have little control over their professional lives--which is to say, most workers.

Q: Organizing drives often deteriorate into all-out warfare. Does this have more of an impact on small companies than big ones?
A:
Most certainly. The cost of resisting an organizing drive is similar, regardless of the number of employees, thereby making it more costly for smaller employers. This is what makes it important that owners and managers of small businesses do the right thing by their employees, and be more sensitive to their vulnerability to union-organization movements.

Q: Is it possible for management to win the certification battle but lose the war--by poisoning the workplace?
A:
If a campaign is too heavy-handed, the employer can be viewed as mean-spirited by the workforce. If fear of the employer is the basis for employees to reject the union, long-term damage can be inflicted upon the employer-employee relationship.

Q: Do you have an ideological problem with unions? Or do you just like a good fight?
A:
I have no ideological problems with unions. Unions are businesses that sell representation to those who need it. My job is to remove the need by teaching employers to fulfill their obligations to their employees. As for just wanting a good fight, only sick people like to fight. I prefer to help employers solve their problems so that fighting is unnecessary. But if there is a fight, I make sure the employers win. Besides, even the unions know there's nothing personal about the fight. It's all business--the business of winning the heads and the hearts of the employees.



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