By: John K. Baker
American business has been preparing to return to normal operations, with some tweaking due to COVID-19-related governmental guidelines, for weeks. Owners, managers and supervisors are being (or should be) trained about enforcing social distancing and the wearing of masks. As we return to the workplace, businesses should also focus on creating a safe and socially-conscious workplace for all employees. The failure to do so puts an employer at risk in the long term. The combination of savvy union organizers and the Black Lives Matter movement is putting the spotlight on injustice and can endanger the viability of an employer who chooses not to strike the proper balance.
The topic is not theoretical. When a Philadelphia-based Whole Foods Market donated food to police during the recent protests over police brutality, several employees appeared at work wearing #BLM t-shirts, masks and pins to raise the store’s consciousness over racial inequality. Those employees were subsequently sent home by their employer. This knee-jerk response led to protesters gathering in front of the store to make sure that the store understood the issue from all perspectives. Even further, customers were directed by protesters to shop at a competitor’s unionized store.
Unions have long fought for justice in the workplace, so it is no surprise that joining hands with social causes fits with their united values. As a result, there is an increasingly direct connection between social movement and union organizing. Twenty-first century union activists are beginning to organize union campaigns not simply around justice for workers, but also around race, gender and sexual orientation issues, to name a few. Union organizers previously have included “Fight for Fifteen” and the Dream Act in their organizing campaigns with some success. The inclusion of social issues gives the unions more visibility, and many employers are not prepared to fend off a union organizing drive if it has poor grades in racial sensitivity and diversity.
This does not mean that employers have to cede their authority, but to use it in a way that honors the perspectives of all its employees. Employers still have the right to run its business, to discipline and generally direct the workforce. Employees lose the protection of the National Labor Relations Act if they engage in intermittent “quickie strikes,” stay-ins or sit-down strikes and slow-downs. But having a strong defense to employee actions of social consciousness should not replace a company’s gauging and re-routing its own commitment to diversity.
As with social distancing, face mask wearing and proper hand hygiene, an employer’s genuine consideration and actions regarding all social justice movements and campaigns in the workplace should also be part of the “new normal.” Moving forward, employers should be keenly aware of the risks of excluding social justice issues from their business philosophies.