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Translating Trump

Workforce Relations in a Trump World

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President Trump embarks on his next 100 days (and beyond) in office with a recently completed cabinet now that Alexander Acosta was recently confirmed as secretary of labor. The president has already acted on several campaign promises intended to help America’s labor market: He pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, committed to re-evaluating NAFTA, met with union leaders, and, most recently, issued executive orders on buying and hiring American.

Whether these actions will actually benefit the blue-collar workers who helped elect Trump is up for debate. What we do know for sure is that this is a dramatic departure from the Obama administration’s approach to labor issues. This shift is likely to alter both the way companies do business and the fundamental relationship between employer and employee. Understanding and appropriately responding to this shift presents opportunities for both sides.

What we can expect

A major overhaul of issues central to private organized labor (e.g., Fight for $15) is unlikely to come from the federal level due to a Republican-controlled government and private sector union budget cuts (in December, the SEIU announced it would cut 30 percent of its budget by January 1, 2018).

Instead, what we are likely to see is:

  • The fight shifting to focus on individual companies’ business practices, or on advancing an agenda at the state and local level. Both scenarios potentially create a patchwork of compensation rules corporations will need to monitor and manage.
  • Second, public sector unions may take the lead when it comes to political activism and criticism of the administration. For example, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) recently criticized the administration’s budget, and the EPA union leader from the AFGE more recently called the budget a “declaration of war.”

We also expect the path forward to be unconventional. President Trump did not run on a traditional, anti-labor conservative platform but instead campaigned heavily on issues tied to industries with traditionally unionized workforces. As he has done already, Trump will continue to weigh in ad hoc on labor issues, and single out specific companies. Amid the era of @realDonaldTrump and a platform with more questions than answers, the onus is on employers to take actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions for employees and the communities in which the company operates.

But perhaps the biggest impact on employee-employer relations will stem from a likely rollback of the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rulings that were designed to make union organizing easier and faster.

This may result in labor groups channeling pent-up energy into physical and digital protests against either individual employers or the administration and its proposed policies. We expect organized labor will leverage rising populist sentiment and restrictive worker legislation to pressure companies to take actions that address the labor movement’s priority issues, including job security, income equality and fair pay, and affordable healthcare.

The path forward

As employers contemplate their workforce relationship under a Trump administration, it is important that they not become complacent in addressing issues important to employees. Proactively addressing these issues is good for business and can also help preempt activist attacks. The populist movement that helped propel Trump into office is skeptical of institutions, and can be deeply hostile to a business which is perceived as leveraging a more business-centric government to advance its interests.

To build positive employee engagement, trust in management, and a safe and effective workplace, leaders must begin by asking themselves three central questions:

  1. Do your employees feel heard and understood? Building and maintaining solid employer-employee relationships begins and ends with listening and dialogue. Digital channels are OK, but the most impactful listening happens in person, one-on-one.
  2. What does your corporate narrative and reputation say about you as an employer of choice? A narrative that reflects the operating environment and the perceived employee experience will help generate increased employee commitment and the advocacy necessary for performance and reputation management.
  3. How effectively does your culture and work environment support individual employee empowerment and performance? Engaging managers and employees directly in the business strategy and operations translates to greater overall empowerment, trust and commitment.

The quality of the employer-employee relationship has wide-reaching implications, both within and outside of the context of the current labor environment. Companies that implement proactive workforce engagement strategies that bring employees and employers together to identify, prioritize and address important issues are well-positioned to manage and succeed in a shifting labor environment.

Megan Baroska is a senior vice president, Integrated Advocacy, Edelman Washington, D.C.
Geren Raywood is a senior vice president, Employee Engagement, Edelman Washington, D.C.

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