UC Berkeley is starting a business school course on managing unionized workplaces

Leaders don’t need to see unions as adversarial—and a new class teaches them that organized labor might even be good for business.
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Baristas are doing it. Tech workers are doing it. Nurses and auto engineers and warehouse staffers and video game designers and retail employees and, yes, journalists are doing it. You shouldn’t be surprised if your company is organizing, too.

In the US, public opinion on unions is at a half-century high, and a growing share of workers say they’d join a union if they had the chance. But according to Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta and a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, for all we’re talking about organized labor, very little has changed about how leaders approach managing it.

“I was talking to an executive at a very big company where labor organizing is happening, and it was astonishing to me that he made it sound like an adversarial relationship was already set in stone,” he says, “even though the organizing had just started.”

In Bahat’s view, leaders don’t need to see unions as adversaries—and when they work with them, rather than against them, organizing might be good for business and workers alike. So he’s introducing a first-of-its-kind course at Berkeley: how to lead when your workforce is organized.

Quartz at Work asked him about his plans for the course, along with what leaders and managers can do now for their own organized teams.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz at Work: In the big picture, is labor winning or losing right now? There’s a tension in the evidence: while we’re seeing high-profile cases and new waves of organizing, membership numbers suggest unions aren’t gaining much ground.

Roy Bahat: Honestly, I don’t think we’re in some scorekeeping game, where we’re trying to count the number of people who have opted into a particular kind of institution like labor organizing, including unions. And there are also plenty of forms of labor organizing beyond unions.

The way I think about it is less like a football game, where somebody’s winning and losing, and more like, What are the experiments that are happening? What can we learn from them, and what do we need to do to change how our economy and society work?

Tell me how that looks in practice.

If you look at unionization at a company like Starbucks, and talk to the workers who are organizing, they want Starbucks to thrive. They like the company’s values, they care about it, they want to work where they believe in something. So it’s not a winning or losing kind of thing. It’s “if we can succeed together at getting both companies and workers what they want.”

I’m not a Pollyanna where I think every victory is going to be win-win. There are going to be some hard, hard things to figure out—as there have been—so some things might be win-lose. But I really resist characterizing the whole thing as victory or defeat. Because if we think about it that way, then we don’t get to win together.

There’s also public opinion to contend with. According to a recent Gallup poll, pro-union sentiment in the US is the highest it’s been in half a century. How does union popularity factor into how we approach workplaces that have been organized?

First, I’d just say that organizing is scary for workers. And that’s understandable. Many companies have aggressive responses—and sometimes even violent responses—to labor organizing. So the more there is a sentiment of support, the easier it is for people to try to do things that might otherwise be really scary.

If you look at emerging forms of labor organizing, it’s almost always led by younger people, [and] it’s almost always led by women and people of color. There’s a crisis of confidence in many American institutions, to say the least. People know that the hand they’ve been dealt isn’t a winnable hand, and so they want to try something different. Of course the idea of a workplace democracy sounds really appealing for lots of people.

Let’s talk about how you turned that into a management course at the Haas School. What prompted you to design it?

I was just astonished in my own learning about this. I said, There must be some courses I can take for a business leader on what to do [with a unionized workforce]. And I learned that there isn’t much out there—I can’t find anything else at the major business schools about this.

What went into designing it was the feeling that if it doesn’t exist, it should exist, and I should try.

Did you face any pushback?

There wasn’t any pushback. UC Berkeley has some great resources about labor…and a labor center that’s really respected. But I think this is a thing that every major business school ought to be offering.

What are some of the components that you’ll be hitting on?

We’re thinking of it as a brief overview of the end-to-end process of working with an organized workforce. So we’re going to talk about things like the history of labor in the United States—a rich history that people hardly ever talk about. We’re going to talk about what workers want.

We’re talking about different forms of labor organizing [because] there are many other forms of labor organizing that students deserve to understand. And we’ll talk about how companies respond, and how they should respond.

A lot of conversations about organizing focus on the dynamic between leaders at the top of the pyramid and the workers nearer the bottom. That leaves out the managers in the middle, who hardly own the means of production, but are often excluded from union contracts. Is that a feature or a bug? 

One of the bizarre things about US labor law is that even the junior-most manager generally cannot be part of a union. If somebody is a promising steward who represents a bargaining unit or a group of workers, [they often] get promoted because they’re really good at doing what they do. And then they can no longer be in the union.

The law in the US is antiquated [from a time when] it was a lot easier to tell “management” from labor. I’ll give you another example. When many [of my] students leave school for their first job at a company, a very common title in their very first, junior-most job is “manager.” Are their interests more aligned with the frontline workforce or with the CEO at a very big company? That’s a really tough call. There’s a whole question of whose interests a union or labor organization is meant to represent [and] that’s a big thing we have to figure out now.

So what skills do managers need for organized environments?

There’s one core skill, which is [understanding] how power works in the workplace. When they start their career, a lot of people assume that whoever has the bigger title always has the power. And it’s just not necessarily the case. It’s really about trying to figure out, where does the power really lie? And why? Who ought to have the power in different situations?

Power has also been distributed differently as companies themselves have become distributed. How does the dynamic shift across hybrid, remote, and distributed teams?

Since the pandemic, we’ve had this natural experiment which has been wonderful in some ways and awful in others about power at work. It feels like power whiplash, where one minute, a CEO is trying to get everybody to return to the office, or [the next minute,] they have to pay people a bunch more because the labor market is so tight, and the next minute, there are layoffs.

Is the workforce, on average, more powerful now or less powerful than it was three or four years ago? I think the answer is that we really don’t know.

How can leaders take lessons from organizing to build better work cultures?

The first step is honestly just caring enough to try, and to try some things that might be risky. If you’re willing to do that, there’s endless stuff out there on all these different ways to create trust, to create a sense of fun, to create an environment of respect and of safety, and to be tolerant and understanding of all the forms of difference—of race and gender and differences in socioeconomic class.

People know fundamentally that the system they’re looking at just isn’t working that well. And so they’re groping for some alternatives to the way the system currently works. I really think that we’re just in this place where we’re trying to figure out a different way to look at things. If we treat [organizing] as a battle, we’ll get a battle, and if we get a battle, we’ll all lose.