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HR in a unionized environment

Collaboration, consultation important in a union context

By Brian Kreissl

While I've never worked in HR in a highly unionized environment, I can imagine there must be some real differences between working in a union and a non-union organization. The truth is the presence of a third party does considerably change the dynamics of the employment relationship.

However, I believe the presence of a union can sometimes be used as an excuse for poor human resources management practices. For example, I can’t count how many times I’ve been on a course or listened in on a webinar and someone asked a question like, “Well this is all very nice, but how can I apply it in a unionized environment?”

It’s as if there’s a feeling the union will thwart every attempt by HR to modernize the workplace or introduce any innovative policies or programs. Sometimes it feels like there’s even a belief the principles of effective human resources management simply don’t apply in a union context.

With all due respect, I think some people with that attitude are just a little too paranoid about what the union is going to do — or they’re basically not crediting the union leadership with any sense by automatically assuming they’re going to grieve just about any change in the workplace, no matter how beneficial such a change would be for employees.

While there are a few issues — like performance management programs or the introduction of a pay for performance culture — that typically raise the hackles of unions, many other HR programs don’t necessarily draw the ire of a union if handled correctly.

It's also important to remember the key labour relations concept of management rights. This is a recognized principle of labour law — one which is typically enshrined within a management rights clause of a collective agreement.

“Management rights” refers to anything that isn't expressly forbidden by the collective agreement, and is generally within the purview of management and therefore considered “fair game.” In other words, even in a highly unionized environment, management (including HR, which is a management function) has the right to manage its workforce.

While there’s little doubt unions will sometimes grieve things that fall squarely within the realm of management rights, there’s much less chance of that happening if the organization consults with the union beforehand and obtains buy-in for new HR policies, programs or initiatives. It’s also important for employers to be familiar with and understand the contents of any applicable collective agreements, the governing labour relations legislation and the relevant arbitral jurisprudence.

Even in a highly unionized environment, not all positions will be part of the bargaining unit. Therefore, it is possible to roll out programs only to non-union employees who aren’t covered by the collective agreement. However, I believe it’s preferable to try to treat all employees the same wherever possible — as long as the collective agreement will allow it.       

Not a union-bashing exercise

One thing I want to make clear is I'm not “bashing” unions. If it wasn't for the union movement, many of the rights we all enjoy as employees probably wouldn't exist. And in the right environment, unions can still have a legitimate role to play.

It’s also worth repeating the mantra that “companies get the unions they deserve.” If an employer is out to exploit its workers or treat them unfairly, that’s frequently when a workplace becomes unionized — or when a union becomes increasingly militant.

I know of several organizations where the labour relations climate is toxic and adversarial. Management resorts to disciplinary sanctions for the most ridiculous, minor transgressions, and the union will even grieve changes that are beneficial for its members.

In such an environment, both sides act like petty, spoiled children and they both end up effectively cutting off their noses to spite their faces. That’s just plain stupid, but again, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The role of human resources

This is where HR can have a role to play. When it’s run effectively, HR in a unionized environment can facilitate a more collaborative labour relations climate.

That can be achieved in part by training managers to manage their employees using a less adversarial style and by coaching rather than disciplining employees, especially for minor issues. HR can also set a good example by consulting with the union and keeping them in the loop whenever major changes are planned.

Generally, when the union is treated more like a partner than an adversary, everyone benefits.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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