Managing in a Unionized Workplace

Getting Things Done in a Constructive Way

Union contract and gavel.

Working effectively in a unionized workplace.

© iStockphoto/ericsphotography

Imagine that you've just walked into the office and you see that one of your people, Mike, is sitting at his desk without any work to do. So, you ask him to help another team member finish an urgent job.

Mike refuses, saying that taking on a different role, even for a day, is not allowed under the union contract. He tells you that, if you want him to do another team member's work, then you must talk to the union, as it's not part of his job description.

You've only been in this role for a week, and now you're stressed and confused about what you can and can't ask your people to do!

This might seem like an extreme example to many people, but it demonstrates that it can be complicated to manage unionized workers, especially if you're new to this type of working environment. In this article, we'll look at the complexities and challenges of managing in a unionized workplace.

Note:

This article is meant as a general guide only. Union rights vary widely depending on your region, state, and country, and, most importantly, on the agreement that your organization has in place with unionized workers. Please seek the guidance of your human resources department or an employment lawyer if you need help with specific laws or situations.

Also, different unions and different union officials have different approaches. Some unions may be very traditional, confrontational, and even – in some countries – violent; while others may be more flexible and supportive of the long-term success of the organization.

What is a Union?

Before workers began banding together, working conditions were often very poor. People could work long hours for low pay, and with few benefits. They may even have worked in factories that were dangerous, and where workplace accidents were common. In fact, workers had few rights at all!

In response to such poor conditions, workers began joining together to pressure their employers to improve their work environment – they began forming unions.

Unions have a long history. In the U.K. people started forming during the Industrial Revolution, but these didn't become legal until 1867. Unions emerged in the U.S. in the 1870s.

A union is a group of workers who have come together to make collective decisions about their work and their working conditions. The union is democratic: the members elect their leaders through a voting process. Through collective bargaining, these leaders negotiate with their employer over wages, working conditions, safety, hours, and other benefits, on behalf of their members.

Unions are based on the idea that a group is stronger than an individual. As a result of early union bargaining there are a variety of benefits that workers can enjoy today (depending on their location), such as a minimum wage, workplace safety standards, overtime, health care, and an eight-hour workday. And, as a result of unions, union members often receive higher pay and get better benefits than equivalent non-unionized workers.

In some cases, unions can be highly politicized; and they may be in alliance with specific political parties.

When an employer refuses to negotiate with a union, or when the two can't reach a compromise, the union may go on strike. In some countries, strikes are often the last resort as workers may lose pay as a result of them. However, in others, union strikes are common and can be violent, resulting in injuries and even deaths.

In many cases, members pay monthly or yearly dues to their union, and the union uses these funds to pay workers a salary during a strike. It also uses these funds to provide other benefits, such as discounts on other services, legal consultations, and additional training.

Prevalence

Membership in unions varies widely, depending on the country you live in, local employee legislation, and the extent to which unions have power to protect employees. Here are some recent examples of union membership in different countries (as a percentage of overall workforce):

  • U.S. – 11.3 percent.
  • New Zealand – 20.8 percent.
  • Canada – 28.8 percent.
  • Sweden – 67.7 percent.
  • U.K. – 25.8 percent.

However, some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have no unionized workers at all.

Union Rights Around the World

The rights of unionized workers can vary widely depending on your industry, region, and country. Laws, rules, and regulations can also be incredibly complex. These rights are constantly changing, as state and national governments enact laws to protect or diminish the rights of union workers.

A good example of the global differences between unions is the "closed-shop policy." A closed shop is a form of union security agreement, where an organization agrees to hire union members only, and employees must be part of the union to remain employed.

In the U.S. and U.K., closed shops are illegal. However, they are legal in many provinces of Canada and of Australia.

Challenges

A number of challenges can arise when managing in a unionized environment. One of the biggest is flexibility or, rather, the lack thereof. Union workers often work set hours, and they must take a certain number of breaks during the day, no matter how heavy or how light the workload. This means that it can be difficult for managers to bring in new ways of working, as all changes need to be agreed with the union first.

This inflexibility also affects cross-training. Many unions stipulate that a worker has one role, and that they must not carry out any task that falls outside their job description. This can be frustrating for employers, especially when there are seasonal changes in work volume, and when workers are off sick. Most non-unionized organizations have a flexible workforce that can rearrange tasks depending on the company's needs, but this is often not the case with a unionized workforce.

Communication can be a challenge with union workers. Some union contracts require most, if not all, communication to go through union representatives, or at least be agreed with them in advance. This can mean that your team and union representatives don't include you in all discussions, which can be a real hindrance in building trust and credibility with your team. Other unions will require communications to be delivered to team members jointly, by yourself and the union representative. The main drawback of this is the extra time that it can take to communicate with your team.

Union contracts can also inhibit the effectiveness of a team or department, especially when people take advantage of the system. For example, many union contracts state that employees can have a set number of absences, or sick days, within a six-month period, before management penalizes them. Some workers take advantage of this, and take every sick day that they're entitled to, every six months.

The problem is that you can't fire these "problem employees," and it can take years to prove that they're taking advantage of the system.

More subtly, a desire for "fairness," when seen as meaning "equal provision of benefits to everyone at the same level" as opposed to "fair reward for hard work," works against the customized approaches to compensation, motivation, and job enrichment   that underpin job satisfaction and high performance.

And, worryingly, unions can institutionalize conflict in the workplace, where union officials may think that they need to be seen to "stick up for members" to justify membership fees.

These challenges can be frustrating, but they underscore the importance of having a strong, trusting relationship with your union.

Note:

Although there are many challenges to managing in a unionized workplace, there can also be benefits. For example, you negotiate with a set group of people who are elected representatives of the workforce, meaning that you can come to an agreement on changes to terms of employment relatively quickly. They can also help you pinpoint and deal with issues that are upsetting people and reducing performance.

Strategies for Managing a Unionized Workforce

Despite the challenges, it is possible to develop and maintain a good working relationship with union officials.

1. Know the Law, Know Your Contracts, and Know Your History

As we mentioned earlier, the laws and rules that govern unionized work are complex, and they vary widely depending on the union involved, as well as your state, region, and country.

It's essential that you become familiar with the union laws and rules that directly affect your organization and team. It's even more important that you know your team members' contracts, inside and out. The union – and individuals – will refer to the contract often in negotiations, and even during day-to-day work. The more familiar you are with their terms, the more effectively you'll be able to respond to questions or challenges.

It's also important to know the history of the recent relationship between the organization and unions. What have relations been like in the past, and, in particular, are there any points of special sensitivity that you need to be aware of?

2. Become "Partners"

It's important to approach the union as a business partner, not as an adversary. You want to work with it, not against it; and when you take this approach, everyone can benefit. One of the ways that you can do this is to communicate openly and share ideas.

For example, imagine that you're having trouble with one team member who's consistently late. You've tried several strategies to try to get through to this person, and none have worked. In most cases, the union only hears of this when you're ready to fire the employee.

However, imagine instead that you tell the union representatives about the problem. They can work with you to turn around this team member's behavior, and they may also be able to provide assistance that you can't. For instance, if the person is often late because of daycare issues, the union might be able to secure reliable daycare for them.

Good partnerships are built on strong working relationships  , and these relationships take time to build. Put time into establishing trust with everyone on your team, including union representatives.

Next, build good relationships by spending time with your team outside of work. This could include work socializing  , or even "volunteer days," where everyone on the team volunteers for a social project in the community.

Another positive strategy is to share important information as soon as you reasonably can. Tell union representatives about upcoming changes or breaking news early, to give them a chance to brush up on the issues. That way, they'll be prepared to answer questions from members. When you give them a heads up, it builds trust and establishes a practice of open communication.

When you have a good partnership with union representatives, you can ask for their help in solving disciplinary issues. A good example is the situation we described earlier, where people are consistently using all of their allowable sick days.

3. Focus on the Positive

Much of the time, managers only interact with union representatives when there's a problem. This means that these relationships are often built in stressful, tense situations, and, as a result, there's often a lack of trust on both sides.

Foster a positive relationship with union representatives by working with them on strategies that reward positive behaviors, not punish negative ones.

For example, imagine that your current system penalizes your customer service team if calls run over seven minutes. You could create a positive incentive by rewarding team members who receive a good review from customers. This not only raises morale, but it also makes everyone in the union happier.

Remember, apart from negotiating compensation, the union's primary goals are the safety and happiness of its members. When you promote these positive objectives, everyone is more willing to work together.

4. Show Respect

Last, remember that the union fulfills an important role for employees.

It's easy for managers or outsiders to fall into the trap of thinking that the union is always wrong, or that union representatives deliberately make things difficult for managers. Respect the positive changes that the union is trying to make, and keep this good intention at the forefront of any conversation or negotiation.

Note:

This article discusses successfully dealing with unionized workers in a positive way. There are some situations where good relations can break down, for example, when unions have decided that a strike is the only available course of action. Please seek the guidance of an employment lawyer, or of your human resources department, for help in these situations.

Key Points

Unions are groups of workers who have banded together to use their combined strength to improve pay and working conditions for their group. Union participation varies around the world, as do laws, rules, and contracts.

While there are a number of challenges that come with managing in a unionized workplace, it's important to remember that the union does offer a valuable service for employees.

It's important to develop a strong, trusting relationship with your union representatives. Look at them as business partners, and remember that they might be able to help you with team members in ways that you can't. Focus on the positive, and always show respect to union members.

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Comment (1)
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    My company's workforce is 60% unionized, so I can definitely relate to this article.

    As the article states, managing in a unionized environment can be challenging for supervisors and managers. Demonstrating respect, reasonableness, consistency in applying rules and ensuring transparency (communications) are critical. As well, all managers need to understand the key elements of the agreement to be mindful of how changes in the workplace, including new processes, technology introductions and new marketing or product campaigns may impact the front line.

    We used to have a very adversarial relationship with our unions. In 2005 we introduced the Common Interest Forum and a collaborative approach to discussing and resolving issues. Over time we have developed strong relationships with the union executive and this has allowed the company to make much needed changes to remain competitive. To get to this state requires tremendous patience, That said, the pay off has been well worth the time and effort.

    Zuni

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