Middle managers have been thrown some curve balls over the last few years, amid the ongoing flux within organizations grappling with an uncertain business environment. That’s put some new challenges on their shoulders – like managing staff who form a union.

Union organizing has traditionally been most common among frontline workers in industries like manufacturing, retail and healthcare. But in recent years, news and media workers have formed unions, and white-collar workers at big tech companies have also pushed to organize, with some at Google doing so successfully. In 2021, professional workers accounted for 44% of all union members, a 13.6% increase from 20 years ago, according to the trade union AFL-CIO.

“Workers are seeking to level the playing field with their employers and unions have had some very visible victories, they’re looking to capitalize on that momentum,” said Peter Rahbar, an employment attorney at NYC-based law firm Rahbar Group.

Middle managers are typically left out of the union process as they are typically deemed supervisors and can’t join themselves, but “are usually the first to know, within management, because they have more regular contact,” said Mark Kluger, co-founding partner at the management-side employment law firm Kluger Healey.

It’s another situation in which they have to balance supporting their staff with demands from upper management, and they’re rarely properly trained on how to navigate these situations in particular. While they are often left out of the conversation, they’re also in a unique position to listen to and understand concerns from staff that are driving them to seek change through outside channels, experts say.

Kluger offers union avoidance training to mid-level managers, and said it’s often given too late by organizations. He teaches managers how to properly identify and respond to union organizing efforts while ensuring they don’t violate the National Labor Relations Act. Those rules state that employers can’t respond to a union drive by threatening, interrogating or spying on staff trying to organize.

“They have to tread lightly in terms of sort of telling people to break it up,” he said.

While big tech has been a target, another area facing more organizing efforts is the nonprofit industry, said Christoper Thomas, a union representative for the Communication Workers of America. Google’s union, the Alphabet Workers Union, is affiliated with CWA.

“A lot of these nonprofits definitely weren’t organizing before the pandemic,” Thomas said. Middle management is in a difficult spot for a number of reasons. Because they aren’t allowed to be a part of the union, they’re often left out of important communications and updates between organizers and upper management, he said.

“Middle management really kicked in a bind because they sort of have to deal with the trickle down of it. Some organizations give out organization-wide updates, but that’s pretty rare,” he said.

“They are typically the least informed of what’s going on, which obviously can put them in a really challenging position, especially if they want to support their staff, he added.

Meanwhile, those middle managers who do get the chance for some advice and training on union avoidance can feel afraid to discuss it with staff, in case they say the wrong thing, and cause larger issues, Thomas stressed. “And I think because of that lack of clarity and information, they get scared. And that just doesn’t need to be the case,” he said.

Organizations often respond to organizing efforts by holding group meetings and acting more receptive and responsive to staff input to see if there are concerns they can address internally. Ultimately, already strained middle managers should have already been having these conversations with staff, as should upper management.

“If you’re talking to them a lot, and you’re treating them well, they shouldn’t really have a reason to turn to anyone else for help,” Rahbar said. “But if they feel that they don’t have a voice or they’re not being treated fairly currently, then they’re gonna look outside for help and for ways to have a voice at the table.”

Labor lawyers have a common saying: “you get the union that you deserve,” said Thomas. “If you’re treating employees, well, you probably won’t have a union, and if you’re not, you may find a union on your doorstep looking to organize,” he added.