Frattallone’s brush with organized labor

A union effort rises and falls in a Circle Pines, Minn., hardware store.

Frattallone’s Hardware & Garden in Circle Pines, Minn., as described by Mike Frattallone, was always an attractive store, with cheerful staff and several long-tenured employees.

Frattallone's Hardware & Garden.

And then one day, out of the blue, a letter arrived with some alarming language:

“Enclosed is a copy of a petition that Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking to represent certain of your employees.” And on it went.

In other words, a union organization effort was in the works – and not across the entire Frattallone Hardware & Garden chain of 22 stores serving the Twin Cities region. It was happening only in Circle Pines.

Spoiler alert: Ultimately, the petition was withdrawn before a certification vote even took place.

But the anxiety over the possibility of a unionized shop in Circle Pines led the retailer’s management — Frattallone and Central Network Retail Group, which acquired the chain in late 2021—to examine what it could have done and what it can continue to do in order to improve worker relations, thus heading off union incursions before they begin.

Lessons from the experience and best practices from experts were shared during a presentation titled “Look for the Union Label” in a recent Orgill Spring Dealer Market in New Orleans.  During the presentation, John Sieggreen, CNRG president, set the stage with some labor-relations history.

Across the U.S. workforce, he said, recent figures place union participation at about 10 percent, with most of that in the public sector workforce (teachers and police, for instance). Union participation  peaked  at about 33 percent in the 1940s.

Management followed some basic "Union Communication Guidance" during its brush with a labor union.

Despite that historic decline in participation, there are signs of union momentum—and not just the current president’s campaign pledge to be “the most pro-union president.” Unions have successfully organized over 300 Starbucks locations around the country, with significant media exposure. Union efforts at Amazon, Walmart and Trader Joe’s (and recently an unsuccessful attempt at Home Depot) have also made headlines.

A fateful phone call

The brush with organized labor in Circle Pines began when a worker placed a phone call to Workers United, the same union that represents baristas at Starbucks. Once the call was made, and the wheels set in motion – “you’re caught in the tornado from the moment it happens,” said Sieggreen.

Frattallone’s Hardware received its initial notice from the NLRB on Jan. 3, 2022. And Mike Frattallone, who took on the role of senior VP of operations after the sale to CNRG, remembers clearly his initial reaction to the letter—"I need some help,” he said.

It came partly in the form of Richard Reinhardt, who consults businesses on labor relations.

It can be a “gut-wrenching blow,” Reinhardt said, for a business to receive a call that the employees are organizing, or even taking the first steps toward organizing.

John Sieggreen, president of Central Network Retail Group (CNRG), in a Circle Pines basement meeting.

For Frattallone’s Hardware & Garden, he quickly provided basic “Union Communication Guidance” in the form of two acronyms: TIPS and FOE.

Under laws that govern labor relations, management cannot share: Threats, Interrogation Promises, or Surveillance (TIPS).

Violations of these rules could result in the de facto establishment of union certification,  regardless of the outcome of an election, Reinhardt said.

Particularly dicey, said Frattallone, is observance of that last point – surveillance. It runs contrary to a business owner’s human nature. There’s a natural desire to simply monitor the situation in the store, and keep an eye out for which way the employee base is leaning in regards to a union certification vote. But surveillance is off-limits.

Meanwhile, management is allowed to share: Facts, Opinions, Examples (FOE).

Simple messaging was employed with success.

Following the NLRB notice, Sieggreen stepped in to lead what were termed “basement meetings” with the staff in Circle Pines. In these meetings, he introduced the staff to CNRG and the people behind it, while trying to keep things simple, authentic and from the heart. CNRG’s over-arching message was described as “Give us a chance.”

There were no power point presentations or fancy graphics. The message was delivered on an old-school paper flip chart. One hand-written message read: “I believe it would be better for us both if we could still talk to each other.” That message shared a flip-board page with a simple drawing of  the employees and Frattallone's separated by the words: “Union lawyer in Chicago.”

One of the factors that added to the anxiety for management was the fact that the vote was scheduled to be conducted through the mail, a result of Covid-mitigation and social-distancing. That meant employees (some still in their teens) would be dealing with the U.S. Postal System, two envelopes (one for the secret ballot, one for a return envelope) and a page of complicated instructions.

“It was a highly convoluted system, with instruction after instruction.” Frattallone said. A scribble in the margin could have invalidated a ballot, and a vote of a simple 1-0 could have decided the outcome.

Labor lessons learned

In the end, the petition to organize was rescinded and the vote cancelled.

4 Keys to a positive work environment

Regardless of union activity, Reinhardt recommends the following four elements which will create a positive work environment resulting in a more successful business.

1. Effective management – A team that cares, listens and responds to concerns.

2. Sound policies and pay plan – fair and applied consistently.

3. Hire and retain employees – hire carefully, train, establish high expectations and terminate incompetents.

4. Communicate – including regular and effective meetings; periodic confidential opinion surveys.

“It was kind of like we were training for a boxing match and the opponent never showed up.” said Sieggreen.

The stores management’s efforts were a success, “but it didn’t feel like a win,” said Frattallone. “It was sad that it had to get to that point.”

Since the drama, Frattallone’s Hardware & Garden has stepped up communication of its benefits and pay policies, confusion over which was probably the impetus of the drama, he said. A matrix-based pay system now provides clarity to the employees about what they can earn at various stages of their career, training and skill levels.

“Everyone knows where they stand,” Frattallone said. “There’s fairness and equity and logic to it. And it really helped our team. Are we perfect? No. But just to clearly delineate what we offer, and what they can expect, it makes a huge difference.”

The approach has been employed beyond Circle Pines and into the wider CNRG family.

Frattallone believes the business and employee relations are both on the right path.

“We had a beautiful store, strong managers, great staff but I missed the signals that something just wasn't right,” Frattallone said. He added: “It was me that was the problem. I was listening to the staff but I just wasn't ‘hearing' them. I didn't take timely action so the staff felt like they needed to get me attention. This can happen to anyone.”