Positive steps, including wage increases, to improve employee relations are vital to ward off overtures by union organizers, say labor relations attorneys for the Chicago Automobile Trade Assocation.

At a seminar entitled "Answering the Growing Union Challenge," James Hendricks and Kevin Dunphy stress the need to keep compensation packages ahead of those at unionized dealerships.

Four union locals represent a number of dealership employees in the metro Chicago market, and about 40% of the area's technicians have been members at one time or another, Mr. Hendricks notes.

He adds, "Chances are if you hire someone he or she has worked in a union atmosphere. He's much likelier to turn to a union if he's upset about something."

Besides mechanics, unions have targeted service writers because their compensation packages "have virtually been ignored," says Mr. Hendricks of the Fisher & Phillips law firm.

In spelling out key labor relations policies designed to minimize employee dissatisfaction, Mr. Hendricks emphasizes the following:

* Enforce policies against harassment.

* Be accessible and hold periodic departmental meetings.

* Be consistent on discipline and set up an informal appeals process.

* Document all incidents.

* Explain why raises or promotions were denied.

* Conduct exit interviews.

"Above all," warns Mr. Dunphy, "don't fall asleep at the wheel. If you're not giving them pay increases, union organizers will promise increases, even though if the union gets in, any raises have to be negotiated."

Mr. Hendricks says women, minorities, part-timers and younger workers are dealership employees whom union organizers often target.