Decades ago, The Beach Boys scored a hit with the line, “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations.” It was, of course, about the feelings that supposedly emanated from a young lady and are intuited by the young man. Its upbeat harmonies convey a clear romantic interest in the young lady. No less than a Ph.D. professor from the University of Sheffield created a formula in 2023 for songs that make us the happiest, and “Good Vibrations”, for its 7th chords and pulsing beat, tops the list. I sing in a barbershop quartet, and the 7th chords keep us coming back for more. Today, corporations occasionally endeavor to transmit “good vibrations” when they are confronted with the prospect of a unionization effort. The authenticity of those vibrations, however, warrant further examination.
Recently, Tesla terminated 18 employees, not all of them union activists, but it came within 24 hours of an announced union push. Tesla tested the limits of credulity by releasing a statement, “There is a false allegation that Tesla terminated employees in response to a new union campaign.” It claimed that those terminated had been identified on Feb. 3, 2023, after a global performance review.
Tesla may be telling the truth, and the documents will eventually help prove the facts. But the timing remains suspect, and, as Doja Cat once said, “People can smell when things aren’t genuine.”
The larger context regarding Tesla and unionization reveals that on March, 21, 2021, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) unanimously held that Tesla coercively interrogated an employee, Ortiz, promulgated a rule restricting employees’ use of Workday (a software program that assists employees with payroll, benefits, retirement and more) in response to protected activity and threatened employees with the loss of their stock options if they selected the International Union to bargain on their behalf. The NLRB also determined that Tesla improperly discharged Ortiz, who was part of the organizing campaign, and issued a warning to another employee.
We cannot in fairness conclude that the February 2023 terminations follow ineluctably from the conduct that drove the 2021 Board decision, but Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has made no secret of his distaste for unions. He tweeted that if the employees chose to unionize, they would lose their stock options, and the NLRB mandated that he delete that tweet. Of course, that deletion does not remove the visceral impact that it already made on the affected employees, much as a jury that is directed to ignore a prejudicial remark by an attorney or a witness cannot unhear what it heard. It is difficult not to ascribe that selfsame motive to such a tweet.
Starbucks, often branding itself as a progressive organization, tried its own “good vibrations” when it declared that it would negotiate with the union at the stores where it prevailed, but Starbucks dragged its feet, a popular tactic of anti-union proponents. Furthermore, Starbucks offered an increase in benefits, but only to stores that did not embark on a campaign or were not unionized and threatened to remove health benefits for a large portion of its baristas, including transgender employees – all actions that may constitute Unfair Labor Practices under the National Labor Relations Act. In contrast, Trader Joe’s responded to two successful August 2022 campaigns by regretting the outcomes but stating that it was ready to negotiate. No disingenuous ambiguity there.
Unions are “favored” by a majority of Americans, according to recent studies, but they are nonetheless on the wane, and have been for decades. Studies have shown that the entry of a union often results in 25-30% increased operating costs, certainly a legitimate concern for corporations and investors. Despite unions’ tenuous popularity – in a 2022 Gallup Poll, they gained the approval of 71% of Americans, the highest rating since 1965 – they continue to remain the David to the companies’ Goliath and wield relatively little power, which has been further diminished by the apparent ebbing of the pandemic, which emboldened workers to leave their jobs for a variety of reasons, including fear of contagion, governmental support during the height of it and disaffection for their daily work lives. Only one out of six Americans lives in a union household, and Gallup also found that employee engagement is higher in non-union workplaces. CARPE DIEM and many studies have found that fear often predominates in many workplaces. Employees are often anxious about the opinions of their supervisors, and fear of layoffs or firing also rank near the top of their list. They are also often apprehensive about untrustworthy managers, autocratic executives and unfair treatment. When psychological safety is at risk, employees spend more time and energy focusing on their concerns and the supposed devious bosses’ next moves than on their job responsibilities and organizational citizenship behaviors – those discretionary things that employees do that exceed their performance expectations. Disengagement often follows, especially if the employees feel a lack of support or worse, a drain on their feeling of well-being. These employees then fail to disclose mistakes or make suggestions for improvement, and collegial relations with peers take a hit. Fear does not merely incapacitate a workplace; it puts employees in constant defensive mode. It is little wonder that actions that smack of coercion, or circumvent or ignore established statutes and regulations, send the unmistakable message that the employee should be alarmed. As a result of the NLRB’s understaffed and glacial responses to even glaring violations, companies regard penalties for NLRA violations an acceptable cost of doing business. These inconsistent findings – Americans favoring unions but companies lording over them with little meaningful or timely recourse – portend an uncertain future for unions, especially when highly regarded companies respond to campaigns with a Janus face.
Good vibrations? H. Jackson Brown, Jr., defined what true love really is: “Love is when the other person’s happiness is more important than your own.”
CARPE DIEM’s workshops “Managing People”, a Penn State creation, and its “The Road to Employee and Supervisor Satisfaction: Employee Engagement and The Psychological Contract”, offer novel techniques and targeted skills to avoid these anathema leadership behaviors and to instead nurture labor-management relationships that are founded on genuine empathy and mutual accountability.