HR Headaches: How to Work Positively With a Union

Whether your employees are showing an interest in organizing or have already successfully unionized, here’s how to work with a union rather than against it and why.

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HR Headaches: How to Work Positively With a Union

Here's what you need to know:

  • Businesses can have positive relationships with unions
  • Reconsider a union as a threat to your business
  • Know that collective bargaining can be positive for both sides
  • Invest in training on problem-solving and form a labor-management committee
  • Prioritize a joint commitment to communication

From Starbucks to Amazon, unionizing is on the rise. According to Gallup, 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest approval rating unions have enjoyed since 1965.

Union election petition filings increased 57% in the first 6 months of the 2021 fiscal year. Roughly 1 in every 6 Americans lives in a household where at least 1 person is a union member.

While companies like Starbucks might take to illegal union-busting activities, an antagonistic relationship isn’t the only one to have with a union. Whether your employees are showing an interest in organizing or have already successfully unionized, here’s how to work with a union rather than against it and why.

Reconsider a union as a threat to your business

As the Industrial Relations Centre at Queens University explains, there’s a common mindset among managers whose employees unionize. They tend to think that, once there’s a union, their employees now work for the union rather than the business. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” an IRC facilitator writes.

Yet, it’s rare for an employer to accept a union without a fight. Yes, unions can give workers power that doesn’t always match the preferences and profit goals of corporate business leaders.

But a union at your workplaces doesn’t have to mean an all-out war between leadership and workers. It is possible to work positively with a union. Here are some tips and tricks for how to accomplish that.

Know that collective bargaining can be positive for both sides

Companies tend to think of collective bargaining as inherently bad. And it might be if all you’re worried about is the company’s profit and its shareholders.

If that’s the case, it is perhaps no wonder why your employees are unionizing. They’re the people who make your company the profitable business that it is and they deserve fair treatment and respect. If they can’t get it through their job, it makes sense that they’ll try to get it through a union.

If you’re genuinely concerned with the well-being of your employees, take unionizing efforts and the collective bargaining process as a sign. Perhaps there are places where you can improve, especially if you’re high up in leadership.

If you’re genuinely concerned with the well-being of your employees, take unionizing efforts and the collective bargaining process as a sign. Perhaps there are places where you can improve, especially if you’re high up in leadership.

If there are several layers of management between you and your workers, there might be things going on that you’re not aware of. So, first and foremost, good faith and an effort to understand should be the attitudes and sentiments you bring to the bargaining table.

“Collective bargaining … can provide positive contributions to both sides through a reduction in turnover and an improvement in communication,” writes Harry Katz in Fortune. Katz is the director of the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution at the ILR School at Cornell University.

“Managers often blame workplace conflicts on unions when speaking in public,” he continues. “However, in private conversations, top executives at several unionized Fortune 100 companies have told me that unions and collective bargaining in fact cause their organizations to communicate more effectively with the workforce, enhance employee morale, and facilitate teamwork.” Those are some pretty big wins.

Invest in training on problem-solving

Working with a union is essentially a problem-solving exercise. There are workplace issues that the union wants to see addressed and vice versa. The more you can train leaders and employees on both the corporate and union sides on problem solving skills, the better.

“Skills-based training on joint problem-solving and conflict resolution can pay major dividends for both the company and the membership when [union representatives] and supervisors are skilled at identifying and working together to resolve issues,” the Queens University facilitator writes. “As part of the training, both parties should be then expected to address issues at the front line,” he continues. This is in contrast to pushing issues into a grievance process which often results in delays.

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Form a labor-management committee

A labor-management committee is a lot like an employee relations committee. Whatever you decide to call it, the goal is creating a space to raise and address issues on a regular basis.

The best place to start with a labor-management committee is with guidelines that outline the committee’s operating principles. Without them, things can devolve quickly.

“Many LMC’s become dysfunctional very quickly, simply because the two parties have different views on the purpose and running of the committee that quickly degenerates into conflict,” the facilitator explains. Instead, “one of the first steps an effective LMC should take is to establish joint operating guidelines that will help ensure the committee’s success.”

There is no single form that these guidelines have to take. They should address how things need to work within your unique committee.

However, there are a few elements that will likely need to be included. It’s often useful for the guidelines to establish who will be part of the committee, how many people from each side will attend, and how often the committee meets.

This is just a start, however. You can get into more specific operating principles that cover everything from creating agendas to who keeps minutes and how. You might want to outline data collection processes that are used to define the issues the committee deals with.

It can also be a good idea to make problem-solving (instead of simply arguing) the clear goal of the committee. Of course you can get as detailed as you like by outlining subcommittees, for example.

Prioritize a joint commitment to communication

Surprises can quickly erode hard-won trust between management and the union. So opt for over-communication rather than under-communication. It’s unlikely that a poor outcome will stem from too much communication, but likely that a lack of communication can breed tension and misunderstanding.

Consider making a joint commitment to keep the other entity in the loop. Discuss expectations around confidentiality. “A healthy union-management relationship pays many more dividends to both parties than ‘tricking’ or surprising the other party ever did,” writes the Queens University facilitator.

Speaking of communication, when it comes to external communication, strive to engage in joint communications. If, for example, you reach a collective bargaining agreement, both parties should be involved in announcing it. This can be critical because the union and management often have different audiences in mind when they communicate.

Businesses often think of their leadership, managers, and shareholders. Unions often think about their membership. Because the audience is different, communication can be different.

And different communication about the same event can lead to an array of issues. Joint communication can help preempt these issues. Craft communications together so that each party will be using the same language to discuss the same news or event.

Businesses can have positive relationships with unions

It can feel like you’re out there alone in the business landscape by trying to work positively with a union. But, despite the headlines, rest assured that you’re far from the first or only business that has endeavored to work well with a union.

There are businesses that have positive relationships with their unions. It’s all about good faith efforts that the tips and tricks outlined here can help support.

Working with a union might be more work in the beginning. This can be especially true if you’re working to make that working relationship as positive and successful as possible. But know that, chances are, the effort will decrease over time and be more than worth it in the end.

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