Columns / Positive Cultures

10 points for working with unions

Safety is an obvious common-ground issue for both “sides”

1 — One important common denominator when working in a union environment is the principle of seniority. All unions embrace seniority as a sacrosanct. Violation of this principle is at the heart of much union-management conflict.

2 — Most generally, in a union environment any major change that touches the contract must necessarily involve union leadership as well. Ensure that union leadership is informed and involved, appropriately, at every stage of the process. Organizations that have attempted large-scale changes have experienced that the union can help make it work, or they can stop it altogether.

3 — To engage the union fully from the outset and at every step in a change effort is to lay the groundwork for success. To fail to do so is to invite, indeed virtually guarantee, failure.

4 — One of the most predictably contentious times in the ongoing relationship between union and management is contract negotiation time. Often management complains that “they (union) don’t care about the business”, as the union complains that “they (management) don’t care about the people”.  The outcome of such traditional adversarial bargaining (usually with the two sides sitting directly across from each other) is often a “deal somewhere in the middle”, with neither side particularly happy with the outcome. So both sides move on, with no increment in the trust of either for the other, and at the next contract negotiation time, do it all again. In rare cases where no compromise deal can be reached, the outcome is quite a bit worse than the one described above, to the detriment of all parties involved.

5 — This “theatre”, frankly, seems dysfunctional and counterproductive. Anyone with any experience at all in building good relationships knows that such a win-lose approach (even if it does result in the “half-a-loaf” compromise) is a weak foundation for an ongoing partnership. The research on negotiation and dispute resolution says, “Go aggressive only if the relationship doesn’t matter to you”. 

6 — There is a non-traditional, collaborative  approach to contract negotiation known variously as “Interest-Based Bargaining”, “Mutual Gains Bargaining”, “Integrative Bargaining”, or” Win-Win bargaining” which aims squarely at identifying, not “positions”,  but the underlying “interests” (“our people have to be able to provide for their families... we need to be profitable so that corporate keeps investing in us and our people have employment”). Such a step back to “why is that position important, and what’s the underlying objective which that position aims to achieve?”, allows both parties to find common interests, where before only stark either-or alternative positions seemed to exist.

7 — As obviously beneficial as the Win-Win approach is to getting a good contract and building a more collaborative relationship in the process, it is a challenge to get there, in the context of traditional adversarial union-management relations. The first efforts are very tender indeed, and easily lost.  Even if “successful”, there is risk that union leadership is now seen by the rank and file (and would-be successors to the current slate of union officers) as “in bed with management” and “not fighting for us”, and so voted out.

How to start?

8 — Safety is an obvious common-ground issue for both “sides”. Even so, well-intentioned safety programs, especially those that focus on worker behavior, are sometimes seen by union leaders as a management ploy to shirk responsibility and assign blame to the worker. As a starter condition, there must be some level of mutual trust.

As sensitive as all the issues involved are, I have seen more than a few examples where, over a period of time, union and management leadership have been able and willing to work collaboratively and effectively on the common-interest issue of safety, designing and leading true joint safety committees.

9 — From that foundational starting point, union and management can forge a better working relationship more generally, sometimes enabling and expediting the ultimate adoption of successful mutual gains bargaining, for the ongoing benefit of the people and the business.

10 — Building a collaborative, trust-based, more transparent union-management relationship is often challenging work, to be sure. But every long-term relationship is challenging work. The benefits of true union-management collaboration are enormous.

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