Making unions partners in change

A little respect can go a long way in making unions a powerful ally
By Blaine Donais
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/09/2007

Change is inevitable. But it often causes a great deal of anxiety for all involved. In order for organizational change to be successful in a unionized environment, management and unions need to work together.

Employees, and the unions that represent their rights, are generally suspicious of the source of change and the motivations for it. Privatization and globalization have led many companies to downsize and reorganize to compete and maximize profits. Often this has been done at the expense of employees. Even less fundamental changes are viewed with cynicism because they often take on a “flavour-of-the-month” quality.

Organizational changes can have a significant impact on employees. Workers are often required to alter the nature and methodology of their work, or even relocate. This has an unsettling effect on employees and they are certain to complain to their union representatives. Unions will in turn articulate this frustration to the employer. And this leads to a general sentiment that unions are against change in the workplace.

Friend or foe?

A union can be a strong ally in workplace change, or it can be a formidable enemy. There are steps the union might take to hinder change in the workplace, such as literal adherence to the collective agreement or grieving and arbitrating any particular by-products of the change attempt.

But more significantly, a union speaks with its membership. The dialogue between the union and its membership can have a serious impact on the success of a change project. If employees in a workplace do not support change, they will use every opportunity to avoid it and cling to existing practices. And while this turmoil plays out, productivity will decline because employees are more concerned about the change than their work.

On the other hand, where the union supports the change, union representatives can use their relationship with members to allay concerns and smooth out any wrinkles in the change process. The union representatives are often recognized as leaders in the workplace and their statements of support will be viewed as credible.

Moreover, the employer will gain important intelligence from the union representatives about how employees perceive the changes. Employees feel safe to speak freely to union representatives, who can then share the information with the employer. The union representatives can afford to be honest, where an individual employee may not feel comfortable criticizing the employer.

Encouraging union involvement

There is an often-quoted truism in labour relations: “Employers get the union they deserve.” If management respects the union’s role in the workplace, then the union will respect the employer’s role.

But this respect must reach beyond the human resources department. HR professionals, no matter how well-intentioned, will be undermined if line managers fail to treat union representatives with respect. Moreover, if the management team is normally adversarial to the union in its regular dealings, the organization can’t expect the union to move to a collaborative approach when it comes time for change.

There are four steps to ensure the union’s co-operation in change:

1. Instruct managers on how to show respect for the union.

The HR professional can help managers build an atmosphere of respect for the unions by ensuring managers do not undermine the union’s role. Managers should be conversant with the collective agreement to limit inadvertent violations. Managers must understand the collective agreement is “law” in the workplace, just like employer policies. Moreover, union representatives who are on part- or full-time release should be treated as leaders in the workplace by line managers and not as obstacles to getting work done.

2. Bargain fairly and resolve grievances quickly.

Unions will be skeptical of the motivations for change if management already has a poor relationship with the union. If management doesn’t bargain fairly and resolve grievances quickly, any move it makes will be seen in a cynical light.

3. Bring the union along as a part of the business process.

The union is not likely interested in “co-management,” but there is a certain level of understanding the union must have about the strategic direction of the company if it is going to support change. Make sure there are regular business meetings with the union leadership so they can understand how the change project fits into the overall strategy.

4. Treat the union as a partner in change.

Union leadership must be involved in the complete rationale for change. The union’s opinions about the advisability of the changes should be seriously considered and addressed. Unions are only sharing what employees would share with management if they were allowed to speak freely.

Blaine Donais is president and founder of Toronto-based Workplace Fairness Institute – Conflict Management Solutions. He can be reached at (416) 720-1229, or visit for more information.

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