Corporate Cultures

The "U" Word

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

       Few things give casino executives heartburn quicker than mention of the "U" word.  Unions stir powerful passions, for and against them.  A strong, positive corporate culture helps keep such emotions from becoming destructive.

 We take no sides on the union issue.  Our experience covers both union and non-union shops in traditional, emerging, and tribal markets.  We've found that management in unionized casinos spend a good bit of their time keeping the union bosses in check.  Management in right-to-work shops pass their days trying to keep the unions out.  It's clearly an issue that bedevils most gaming executives to some degree.

 From our research across the spectrum of gaming markets, the crucial idea that emerges is that if you really, truly care about your employees and demonstrate it through your actions, you deny  unions  fuel for their fires.  Your employees want to connect.  They want to belong.  They want someone to listen to them.  If you don't give them the opportunity to connect, make them feel wanted, and listen to them, the unions will.

     Unions thrive on dissatisfaction.  Without it, there is no need for them.  Where they are successful, it's because union organizers are keenly aware of the basic human need we all share   to be recognized for our worth.  Union bosses are astute masters at seizing on employee disenchantment from feeling ignored, or worse, feeling exploited.  They are well-prepared to lend a sympathetic ear and volunteer to take up the sword as champion of those not strong enough by themselves to be heard.

     Unions, by their nature and purpose, tend to be in conflict with cultural unity.  It is essential to their very survival to drive a wedge between management and employees and keep it there.  It's their reason for being.  The solidarity they preach excludes management, and in consequence is counter to unification of the whole organization in support of a common vision.  The more extreme the management neglect, the more extreme is likely to be the union response.

 You may be nodding your head and saying to yourself, "True, very true."   Don't be too smug.  That unions exist means management has failed to fulfill the basic human needs we described.  If you're doing the right thing by your employees in the first place, there will be no need for them to turn to a union for help.

 "But doesn't this union thing just come down to money   negotiating for more pay?" you may be thinking.  If this is your perception of what it's all about, you're missing the much deeper meanings of why unions exist   and the unions are counting on your lack of understanding.

     Money is always important, and we all want more of it.  Yet beyond providing the wherewithal of life and a few amenities, money is only one means of keeping score of our self-worth.  In survey after survey, we've seen that employees whose worth is rewarded through meaningful recognition, empowerment to take responsibilities, and trust built on kept promises are less likely to cause an uproar about pay scales or jump ship for a few cents more an hour.  A focus on higher pay results from a deficiency in the other means for keeping score of employee worth.

     In the gaming operations we've studied, companies with well-established corporate cultures that treat employees with dignity and respect, that have open lines for two-way communication between management and employees, usually have fewer vexations from union interference.  Where there are unions present in such companies, contract negotiations more often than not are relatively amicable and reasonable.  Where there are not unions in said companies, the likelihood of them gaining a foothold is greatly diminished; satisfied employees can readily appreciate what they stand to lose by imposing a third party into their relationship with management   an arrangement they will have to pay for with union dues.

     A word of caution: the effectiveness of a strong corporate culture as an antidote to unionism depends on the honesty and sincerity of management in forging a bond with employees.  If corporate culture building is undertaken solely in reaction to a union threat, it's highly likely it will be perceived by employees as an empty and cynical attempt to weasel out of giving them what they feel is their due.  The vision and spirit of your culture must come from the heart, not from the balance sheet.  As we said in the beginning, you must really, truly care about your employees.

(This article appeared in the May 2000 issue.)