Given The Right Relationship, Unions Can Help Companies Achieve their Goals and Objectives
For those companies that have union-represented employees, working together with union leaders in a spirit of partnership and cooperation can actually help improve company performance.
Establish Mutual Interests
To begin, it must be understood that neither management nor union leaders can be successful over the long term without the cooperation and support of the other.
The first step for management and union leaders interested in establishing an effective working relationship is to realize that they have far more in common than what separates them. In fact, there are compelling reasons to cooperate; a business that is healthy and profitable is better positioned to grow and attract much-needed investment capital, provide employees with competitive compensation, and increase employment opportunities.
Union Leaders Can Help Companies Succeed
As trusted elected officials, union leaders are uniquely positioned to help companies engage the workforce and improve productivity. Listed below are several examples of how union leaders, working with management, can help:
- Educate the workforce as to key challenges and concerns facing the business
- Encourage employees to accept changes required for the company to be successful
- Work with management to address concerns and develop practical solutions
- Establish employee committees to generate and new ideas for improvements
- Draw on their membership to design and deliver valuable employee skills training
- Reduce conflicts and costly disruptions by resolving issues quickly
- Meet with current and potential customers to help promote business
- Improve teamwork, performance and quality of work life for employees
Management’s Role – Starts with LISTENING
First and foremost, management must recognize that union leaders and members have an important role to play in determining the success of the business, and should be open to working with the union in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. Equally important, management needs to LISTEN and acknowledge the concerns and ideas generated by the union and their membership. This is not to say that every idea proposed by the union should be adopted, but given my experience, I expect there will be many good ideas worthy of discussion.
Also, having conducted employee relations assessments at union-represented facilities over the course of my 30-year career, management should take note of the following:
- While compensation needs to be competitive, employee morale and engagement is not determined by pay and benefits alone.
- Employees want to feel valued and appreciated for their ideas and recognized for their contributions
- For employees to respect and support management, they must first feel that management respects them, and listening to their ideas and concerns is a good place to start.
Cooperation vs. Conflict
The cost of the conflict that often arises between management and unions is apparent to most everyone; company performance declines, good paying jobs are lost, and families and communities are often devastated. What many people do not realize is that pay and benefits are not the principal drivers associated with decline, rather restrictive work rules and other impediments to productivity are frequently cited as the major reasons for conflict and the loss of jobs. As one CEO put it, “I don’t mind paying high wages but I expect high productivity and performance in return.”
On the positive side, when the entire organization (management, employee and union leadership) operate as a team with everyone pulling in the same direction, companies are better able to grow, attract working capital, and provide employees with pay increases and stable employment. In short, a cooperative, flexible and productive work environment can help create a positive future for all parties.
Challenges – Leaders Must Lead
The role of a leader in any organization can be challenging. Being a union leader can be particularly difficult, as the interests and ideas of their members are often very diverse. Despite the varied interests of their membership, it is important that union leaders avoid being swayed by a seemingly ever-present minority of members that want to fight with management, restrict productivity, and increase costs irrespective of the company’s profitability. At the same time, company management must learn to embrace the ideas and concerns of their employees and avoid hierarchical management styles that alienate employees and promote divisiveness. In both cases, leaders cannot be swayed by voices from the edge and must have the courage to do what is right for the long-term benefit of all concerned.
Visible Partnership – Setting Positive Examples
To help ensure that employees understand that management and union leaders are engaged in a partnership focused on mutual success, it is essential that both parties repeatedly communicate this message to the entire workforce. In addition, beyond words it is very helpful for employees, both union and nonunion, to observe union leaders and management working together on a regular basis.
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying”
A couple of ideas to visibly show employees that management and union leaders are cooperating might include: (1) invite union leaders to speak during all employee meetings and business updates, (2) conduct regular walk-throughs of the facility together, (3) invite management to speak at select union functions, and (4) invite union leadership to meet with new or potential customers.
As stated earlier, neither management nor union leaders can be successful over the long term without the cooperation and support of the other. As trusted elected officials, union leaders are uniquely positioned to help educate the workforce and to facilitate change for improved productivity and performance. Inevitably, there will be areas of disagreement, but in today’s competitive business environment management and union leaders must work together in a spirit of partnership to create a positive future for both the business and employees.
Hutchison Group Can Help
With over 30 years of experience in union-management relations, we have earned the respect of both management and union leaders, and our union relations consultants are uniquely positioned to help facilitate productive union-management partnerships and improve employee relations. While every company’s situation is different, we would be happy to meet and customize a plan to address your specific needs and goals.
The above article was written by Cameron J. Hutchison, President and Founder of Hutchison Group, Inc. With over 30 years’ experience, the Hutchison Group is a highly regarded management consulting firm focused on all aspects of labor and employee relations; helping union and non-union employers improve productivity, teamwork and performance. Visit our webpage at www.hutchgrp.com