Union efforts shake up employment law landscape

Betty Q. Hixson
During the first six months of fiscal year 2022, union representation petitions filed at the NLRB have increased 57%—up to 1,174 from 748 during the first half of 2021. (Photo: Ben Von Klemperer/Shutterstock.com)

Amid high-profile unionization efforts across the country, labor and employment attorneys report seeing an influx of work and they are shifting resources to handle client inquiries. Employee labor activities are moving into the forefront among a few prominent examples in the news, such as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island and workers at Starbucks stores voting to unionize.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, during the first six months of fiscal year 2022, union representation petitions filed at the NLRB have increased  57%—up to 1,174 from 748 during the first half of 2021.

Related: Amazon unionization vote: What does it mean for employers?

Swift Currie managing partner Mike Rosetti says his Atlanta-based firm has seen rising work as a result of the increased unionization efforts.

“Our labor and employment lawyers are definitely being kept busy by the issues that our clients are experiencing in that field,” Rosetti said. “We’ve seen a lot of employment-related inquiries and have been shifting resources to accommodate those inquiries.”

With the increase in union petitions, Richard Vitarelli, the co-chair of Jackson Lewis’ labor relations group, said clients are asking questions to understand the NLRB process and what it involves.

“They want to understand what’s lawful in terms of communications. They want to understand what their legal rights are, what the legal rights and responsibilities of the employees are as well,” Vitarelli said in an interview. “If you look at the penetration in the private sector, you’ve got under 7% unionization. In a lot of ways, what we do is we teach people what the labor laws provide for so that they can have a better understanding of the rights of the employees and the rights of the companies.” 

However, Vitarelli said that since the firm’s labor work is “much more diverse than that one component”, it remains difficult to say exactly how much more business the firm has seen from the increase in union-related inquiries.

“A lot of our work comes from unionized clients being able to work on an ongoing basis with the unions, including in the context of transactions and day-to-day management and operations,” he said. “We’ve always had the full range of labor services that we provide our clients, so it’s hard to tell at this point what impact … new organizing has had on the firm because it’s still relatively recent.” 

For Atlanta-based law firm Fisher Phillips, the rise in union efforts has resulted in an opportunity to give more real-world training for its labor and employment lawyers.

“Traditionally, we’ve worked hard to grow that group, but nothing is a better developer of talent than real-world challenges like the ones our clients face today,” said Steven Bernstein, the co-chair of Fisher Phillips’ labor relations practice group and the managing partner of the firm’s Tampa office.

Bernstein notes some union activity is a result of middle and senior-level lines of management lacking contact with employees during the pandemic, driving “perceptions of alienation.”

“When you’re dealing with the workplace that, to some extent, has moved towards a teleworking model, that makes it more difficult to reach out, connect and establish touchpoints with your workers,” he said. “That can contribute to union activity in and of itself.” 

Bernstein said he anticipates that the future of the labor and employment practice is “largely unwritten” and the changing practice area is resulting in new opportunities in communicating with clients.  “We’re really seeing everything unfold at light speed during these interesting times,” he said.


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