Union – Management Relations: It is Not Easy



Posted by Rick Dacri, June 13, 2013

In a recent post (Manager: Its Legal Definition), I recounted a response to an HR HelpLine client on how he could promote a union employee to a nonunion manager. My response elicited a comment from another client (listed below, with the client name redacted), which I wanted to share with you:

Client Comment: Many issues to consider here.  First of all, if the employer is promoting a person from the Union to exempt status, how can that person still have many of the same duties as that of the Union person?  In our organization, the duties of the “supervisor” need to be different than those of the Union position or we run the risk of grievances for a supervisor doing “Union-type” work.  Also, in munis (the client is a municipal public power), only the General Manager can “hire, transfer, lay off, promote, or discharge” employees.  We’ve promoted employees from the Union to management on occasion, but it usually depends on the person and the Union group.  In our organization, where there is a significant divide in philosophy between the Union and management, it is often difficult to get a Union employee to crossover into management and embrace a completely different ideology, especially if he/she will be supervising his/her former Union group.  The new supervisor often struggles with the new thinking, and with holding his/her former “buddies” accountable.

Dacri Response: Thanks for your comments. To begin, it is not uncommon in organizations, particularly small ones, to find a manager operating as a working manager/supervisor and often doing some work that the crew does. I understand doing this would result in a grievance with some unions, but not all. For example, in one of my municipal clients, the nonunion supervisor works side by side with the crew with no problems. The crew actually likes that he does that. They appreciate his willingness to help out, roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. The relationship between the crew and this supervisor and the crew and the town is very positive. Surprisingly, the Teamsters represent them. Come negotiation time they play hardball, but on a day-to-day basis, it is very amicable. It works in companies that have a strong, positive relationship. Look at Southwest Airlines. Several unions represent them, and it is not uncommon for the pilot to help clean the plane or load the baggage. While contracts often spell out a clear divide in management and member responsibilities, in these cases, the divide is blurred because of the positive relationship that has formed. Their focus is getting the job done, not on who does what.

As for the hiring and firing, the key phrase (noted by the NLRA and outlined in the previous blog) is “or effectively to recommend such action.” A manager may not have final authority to hire or fire, but if she can make a recommendation, that often suffices. That doesn’t mean you must do what she recommends, but it does mean you seriously consider her recommendations.

As for the difficulty promoting from within the ranks and the differences in ideology, this happens a lot. In many cases it is hard for the worker to one day become the boss, but I have seen many successful transitions. When everyone is clear about their respective roles, they buy into a common philosophy (you referred to it as an ideology) and the new supervisor has been fully trained to manage, the transition to boss is much smoother and there is no reason why one cannot be successful. Friendships sometimes are sacrificed, but they do not have to be. This is a work setting, not a battlefield.

In organizations where there is a negative relationship between the management and the union, cultural change is needed to smooth that adversarial relationship. It takes time. Understanding the mission, the company’s core purpose, is critical—and everyone must embrace it. Secondly, internal systems must promote merit and excellence; the company must eliminate procedures that foster discontent and reinforce a divide; and training and education of supervisors to manage and employees to perform within expectations must be in place. All of these will help create the culture and climate that you want.

Unions and managers can work together. I see it all the time. It is not easy, but it can be done.

If you want to know more about the Dacri HR HelpLine, click here: HR HelpLine


What are your experiences? Let us know in the Comment section below.

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