Anti-union stances can affect brand sentiment, study shows

According to Harris Poll research, 42% of Americans said they’re less likely to shop with a company that’s trying to stop employees from unionizing.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

There was Amazon workers’ vote to unionize at an Alabama warehouse, then came the strikes from unionized workers at John Deere and Kellogg. There was the first union at a US Starbucks store, the workers at an REI store in Manhattan seeking a union vote, tech workers’ efforts to unionize at The New York Times, and another vote at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama—and that’s not even all of the companies that have made headlines related to unionization efforts among their workers and strikes from members throughout the past year.

Across industries and job titles, many workers around the US have been coming together to fight for better wages, benefits, and safety protections. And they may have the public on their side. According to a survey conducted by Marketing Brew and Harris Poll last month, among 1,998 US adults surveyed, 71% of respondents believe that more service-industry companies should have employee unions.

That belief has the potential to impact purchasing behavior, the survey suggests: 42% of Americans said they’re less likely to shop with a company that is trying to stop its employees from unionizing, and 41% said the same of a company with a union on strike. Those numbers are even higher among Gen Z.

Beyond that, 29% of respondents said they would actually be more likely to purchase from a brand with unionized employees, including 41% of millennials and 32% of Gen Z.

Linda Ong, founder and CEO of cultural insights and strategy firm Cultique, who has been conducting research and advising clients about topics like collective action and unionization since 2016, said the increased push for employee rights started with millennial-led movements like Occupy Wall Street, and continued on with Gen Z.

“We’re seeing an overall move in power, a shift in power from the C-suite to the E-suite, the employee suite,” Ong told Marketing Brew. “People recognize that worker rights are important because everybody is reassessing the role of work in their lives anyway, so whether you consider yourself a worker who might be unionized or not, you can empathize.”

Say what you need to say

Some companies might look at last year’s stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicating union membership was at an all-time low, and sigh with relief. But public approval of labor unions is the highest it’s been since 1965, according to Gallup, and given the high profile of brands currently facing union votes, experts say employers should be prepared for the wave to grow.

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Brayden King, professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told Marketing Brew that it’s “too early to tell” if we’re seeing the rise of a new labor movement, but added that “it does seem to be the case that employees are willing to express their frustrations with workplace and do something about it.” He anticipates more unionization efforts to emerge in the next year.

When labor movements do form, Prashant Malaviya, marketing professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, told us brands should think through their responses carefully.

“If they keep it quiet or if they are able to sort of handle this by sending a CEO or some executives and letting the unionization votes proceed without too much interference, I think the impact on the consumer and the overall brand is not going to be that high,” Malaviya said.

If a company takes an anti-union route, he added, it could put itself at risk of a boycott. “One could imagine that [if] a brand is actively trying to stop their workers from unionizing, and sort of monopolizing them and how they engage with that, that potentially could raise a voice from the consumer directly.”

When more than a thousand of Kellogg’s union workers at four plants went on strike this fall for better pay and benefits, a call to boycott Kellogg’s products from activists on Reddit soon followed. The company put out job ads for “pre-hiring” non-union workers to “cross the picket line.” After a contract proposal was rejected by the union representing the striking workers, Kellogg said it would “permanently replace” workers on strike, drawing backlash on social media and criticism directly from President Biden.

The strike at Kellogg ended in December, when the union representing the workers ratified a new contract, after nearly three months.

Ultimately, King said it can be beneficial for companies to just listen to the people speaking up: “Engaging with activists creates openings for improvement in process and design. And that’s going to make those organizations better, and that will eventually be reflected in the reputation of the company.”

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