By Brian Kreissl
A few years ago I wrote a post questioning whether HR is all that different in a union environment. I believe the answer is a definite “yes.”
Obviously, the vast majority of employers would prefer to remain union-free if at all possible. Aside from the fact unionized employees tend to earn more than their non-union counterparts, most employers see unions as a limit on their legitimate management rights which allow them to manage their workforces basically as they see fit (subject, of course, to legal limits, as prescribed by law).
The concept of management rights provides that management is free to exercise normal managerial authority in the absence of specific prohibitions in the collective agreement – or with respect to limits found in legislation or arbitral jurisprudence.
However, it seems like some managers in unionized settings tend to “over-manage” their employees through excessive use of discipline and the tendency to treat even the most minor transgressions as disciplinary matters.
Adversarial labour relations climates
Indeed, the labour relations climate can be downright adversarial in many unionized organizations. In such companies, it almost seems like managers aren’t even able to provide coaching or informal feedback to their direct reports.
Instead, everything is managed through the discipline and grievance processes, and management can barely talk to workers without a union representative being present. There is also the stereotype about unionized workers refusing to perform even the simplest tasks if they aren’t included within their job descriptions.
But whose fault is that – management or the union? It may just be a “chicken and egg” argument with no real answer.
People say companies get the unions they deserve, and because of that one might argue an adversarial labour relations climate is often the result of management’s poor treatment of workers in the first place. However, it could be that some unions may be a little too militant in their demands and that the mere existence of the collective agreement essentially turns both management and labour into petty children.
Some people argue unions probably want to keep at least some levels of dissatisfaction going in the workplace; otherwise employees may decide it no longer makes sense to remain unionized. But it need not be that way.
Mutual respect, trust and information sharing
Many unionized organizations these days are able to have a much more collaborative and consultative relationship with their unions. Mutual respect, trust and information sharing characterize such relationships.
About a year ago, I found it interesting how many people in the media were so surprised at comments made by Peter Edwards, vice-president, human resources and labour relations at CP Rail basically praising unions and crediting the union movement with our high standard of living and the rise of the middle class. While CP Rail ironically just came out of a strike with the Teamsters Union, did people at the time really think Edwards was going to say something extremely negative about the union movement?
Union bashing – even by a high ranking executive at a private sector organization – certainly isn’t a recipe for a positive labour relations climate in a highly unionized organization. Being highly critical of unions isn’t likely to engage unionized employees.
Edwards himself hinted at the fact that unions help to fill a need for belongingness among employees, and if what is essentially their fraternity is being attacked by outsiders they are naturally going to become defensive. It’s also their livelihoods we are talking about.
Learning from one another
Two of Carswell’s authors, Jamie Knight and Blaine Donais, have written books about the topic of managing and engaging employees in a unionized environment. Reading through these books, my biggest takeaway is that union and non-union employers can both learn from one another.
Through the concept of management rights, unionized employers can ignore the presence of the union – at least to a certain extent – when designing HR programs. Of course, it does make sense to consult with and inform the union before instituting any new programs in the workplace, but the idea is employers shouldn’t be afraid of the union.
On the non-union side, employers can improve fairness in the workplace by instituting policies and programs that allow employees to air their grievances and appeal decisions to senior-level management. It may also make sense to establish an employee ombudsman in the organization and ensure fairness and respect are built into the culture