Union-free shops strong in HR

Respect, recognition, structure and communication can help
By Jamie Knight
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2011

It is entirely appropriate and legal to want a non-union workplace. But there is no magic formula for keeping unions at bay — union organizing could occur at any time. The best bet is to maintain a productive and positive work environment with well-informed, motivated employees.

Management teams and HR professionals who are charged with maximizing employee performance would do well to think up, down and sideways about organization leaders, front-line workers and support staff. It is important to have a harmonious and highly motivated senior leadership group. It is just as important to make sure employees feel they are meaningful contributors to the achievement of an organization’s objectives.

HR professionals should strive to balance the needs, goals, idiosyncrasies and aspirations of the different players in harmony with the overall objectives of the workplace itself, be it in pursuit of profit (private sector) or service (public sector). This balance is achieved and maintained by respecting and caring for each individual employee while insisting on high levels of achievement.

While it is unhealthy to manage in a perpetual state of crisis, driven at all times by a fear of union organizing, it is useful to maintain a healthy respect for that possibility. To avoid this prospect, management should understand the union’s sales pitch and bargaining objectives. Then, to the extent possible and always in a manner consistent with the primary objectives of the organization, management should try to replicate much of what the union would promise to employees in an organizing drive — it is difficult for a union to sell something that is already being provided by management.

But each workplace is unique, with its own history and culture, so replicating what is done in a union workplace should only be done when it makes sense, and is comfortable, both for management and employees.

Some of the key aspects of a unionized workplace that non-union workplaces may strive to emulate include:

• recognition of service or seniority as a key factor in compensation, vacation entitlement, job security and opportunity for advancement within an organization

• a structured complaints procedure (that could double as an employee suggestions procedure) that ensures employees have a clearly understood and formal vehicle for reacting to management decisions, including disciplinary decisions

• an effective dispute-resolution mechanism, even if it’s simply a clear acknowledgement a plant or office manager will make a final decision that will be communicated to the affected employee(s)

• a job vacancy and job promotion procedure

• a structured and clearly communicated compensation system, including classifications, wages with the potential for advancement within a classification due to both seniority and merit, as well as benefits and pension (if available)

• a clearly articulated health and safety policy and program that is a priority for the workplace.

Non-union workplaces have some significant advantages for employers that want to make changes because there are none of the restrictions found in a collective agreement and no third-party intervention into workplace disputes.

The best chance an organization has of avoiding unionization is through the ongoing application of positive principles of HR management.

Jamie Knight is a partner at Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto, which specializes in management labour and employment law. He can be reached at jknight@filion.on.ca or (416) 408-5509.

Tips for employers

Internal versus external vulnerability

A critical component to a proper union-free strategy is to engage in a process that will continually assess an organization’s vulnerability. This process will answer the question: “How do I know if my company is at risk?”

There are two types of vulnerability that must be assessed. Internal vulnerability (also called variable vulnerability) focuses on issues over which the company has a strong measure of control, while external vulnerability (or structural vulnerability) factors in environmental and other issues normally outside a company’s control.

Internal vulnerability centres around employee engagement and positive workforce factors. Issues considered include:

• Do we have a positive work environment?

• Do we follow good hiring practices?

• Are we effective at onboarding employees?

• Do our supervisors have the proper skills and abilities?

• Are we consistent with pay raises and promotions?

• Do we have policies and procedures in place and are they followed consistently?

When handled well, such factors generally lead to an engaged workforce. When handled poorly, they create unrest, increasing vulnerability. This is the place where focused and direct action can have a high payoff. The bad news is since employers have direct control, union organizers can focus on this area to increase discontent. For this reason, internal vulnerability is highly predictive of the likelihood of organizing activity.

This is also why the internal issues indicated by a proper vulnerability assessment are the most important to address.

External vulnerability factors are generally outside a company’s control, such as:

• Are we located close to other unionized companies?

• What recent petition or organizing activity is going on in this community?

• Is the union density high in our industry or has our industry recently become a new target for union organizing?

• Are some of our facilities or departments already unionized?

External vulnerability is about understanding the business climate and having “advanced intelligence” on the likelihood pressure may be coming from the outside as well. Although you can’t do much about external factors, understanding them does help clarify just how much of a priority should be given to assessing internal vulnerability factors and addressing any weaknesses.

Source: Is There A Target On My Back? Myths and Best Practices in Assessing Vulnerability to Union Organizing by Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel at Labour Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla.

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