What the heck is a “Micro Unit” and should you be concerned?

Small units called "micro units" can be unions.
Small units called “micro units” can be unions.

Is a micro unit something out of nanotechnology? Is it something out of atomic measurement? Is it some unit of measurement for height challenged people? Unfortunately it is none of these things. It is the latest tool the National Labor Relations Board has provided to unions to make it easier to organize your workplace.

The Macy’s Decision

According to attorney Rebekah Mintzer of MintzLevin, the NLRB handed down a decision on July 22, 2014 that applied an earlier decision from 2011. The Board decided that the 41 employees of the cosmetics and fragrances department of a Massachusetts Macy’s store had the right to form a union. Management argued that the appropriate bargaining unit would be the entire store and not a single department within the store. The NLRB applied a previous decision from the Specialty Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Mobile that allowed small unit bargaining on the basis of the “community of interests” test.
It said not only do the cosmetic and fragrance workers have enough identifiable common interests to make them a viable bargaining unit, it also said that for management to include any other workers in the bargaining unit they would have to prove those other workers shared the community of interest. Apparently being a retail worker in one store with a common management team was not enough of a community of interest.

Why is this important?

The appropriate bargaining unit has long been an important subject of determination in the formation of a union and in deciding who gets to vote. Historically unions have gone after much larger units, such as entire plants or facilities. However, as union membership has waned the unions have changed strategy. They now operate under the idea that smaller units are easier to organize. Fewer people have to be brought into the fold and convinced to be pro-union. There are generally more cohesive points of view in smaller units. Unions are seeing that the smaller unit is a toe-hold into the organization. This is a divide and conquer strategy; and guess what, the NLRB is greasing the skids for them with these decisions.

What to watch out for

There are a number of things to watch out for in your company that may indicate union activity. These include things like:

  • Conversations that suddenly stop when you walk in the room
  • Associations of employees you have not seen before
  • An increase in questions never heard before
  • The nature of employee complaints change and the frequency increases
  • “Group” complaints start to appear, employees approach management in groups either through direct action or by petition.

There are many more. However, to me one of the critical ones you have to pay attention to in micro unit activity is the manager or supervisor of that group. How well are they perceived? If employees are unhappy with their supervisor that will be an early impetus for seeking a union.  So pay attention to the relationships that managers have with their employees.
By the way, the answer to the question in the title is “yes, you should be concerned.”

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