Getting the Union you Deserve

In my previous post, Fearing Unions, I pointed out that the character of various labor unions range from “modestly helpful” to downright “paralyzing.”

Why do you have the type and character of union that you’ve got?  What happened that dictated the relationship you inherited was cooperative or pugilistic?

In a word:  History.

The past matters

Investment firms warn that “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.”  When it comes to company-union relations, however, the past dictates almost everything.

One of the unions I had more than a passing familiarity with was the United Auto Workers.  The union began organizing automobile factories in the 1930s.  At that time, the auto companies had grown to gargantuan size, and management became completely disconnected from their workers.  Favoritism, an incendiary issue in the organizing of many unions, ran rampant.  Supervisors were perceived as doling out favors to their pals like they were candy.  During some of the initial organizing strikes, the companies used every means available to fight against their workers including things like mass firings, intimidation, and calling in the police to act as their thuggish proxies.

The relationship started poorly, and has stayed that way to this day.  Hardly a big surprise.

After many years of attempted rapprochement, after strikes and “work to rule” actions that crippled various plants and firms, after bankruptcies and decades of shrinking and retrenchment, the dynamics of the relationship have changed little.

One could argue that the auto companies have the types of unions they deserved – planted with distrust and malice and still full of that, today.

In a contra-example, I once had responsibility for a plant in California that was also unionized.  Years earlier, the organizing drive had been weak, but management didn’t vehemently oppose it.  The main concern of the employees at the time of organizing was safety, and after the union was voted in, management worked with the union to establish a first-class safety program.  Relationships started positively, and were cooperative for the most part, with the two sides  coming to loggerheads only on rare occasions.

One could easily ask why this company ended up with a union at all – possibly management could have successfully fended off the organizing drive.  But with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the outcome they achieved was better than engaging in a pitched battle at the time of organizing – one that could have gone either way.

By the time I was managing this facility, I was convinced that with a little encouragement we could have, convinced the employees to decertify the union.  I didn’t see any reason to do so, however, knowing that any change to the delicate balance that existed at the site might easily lead to a less desirable outcome.

It can change, but usually only for the worse.

I have observed only one instance of a relatively passive union becoming active.  This occurred when the shop floor came to be dominated by a particularly problematic manager, and senior executives backed-up that manager despite the fact that the he was clearly a major issue.

While relations up to that point had been fairly cordial, this “ditch to die in” became the “straw” that broke the trust of employees in their management team.

Although I haven’t been involved in the business for a number of years, I’m confident the relationship still carries scars from that incident.

Want to keep a union out?

No sane manager wants a union.  But what do you do to prevent getting one?

Pay attention to the concerns of your employees.  Period.

While doing so may seem tedious and petty to a senior executive (Who wants to worry about details like:  who gets overtime, how are promotions and lateral moves handled, or why the vacation application process is unfair), they aren’t small issues, at all.  These concerns are the things that drive everyday life on the shop floor.  If you think they are unimportant or beneath you, you’re setting yourself up for a bad surprise.

Unfair or inequitable treatment by supervisors is a particular flashpoint.  You should put measures and policies in place to make sure your supervisors are not giving their favorites unfair advantages.  Then verify that your supervisors are in compliance.  And do so more often than “once in a blue moon.”

Yes, I know, sometimes the “favorites” deserve to be treated better because they do more, risk more, or work harder/smarter, but it doesn’t matter.  If the average employee doesn’t understand and agree that the treatment is reasonable, it is a mistake.

What if there is an organizing drive?

Many so-called experts will have you fight to the death to keep a union out, using all means at your disposal (and possibly a few that technically aren’t) to oppose the union.  While I believe management should present their case for why a union isn’t necessary, the dirtier tactics should be avoided.  You have to realistically acknowledge that you may end up with the union whether you like it or not, and the circumstances surrounding its birth will hang around the neck of the organization like an albatross for decades to come.

Better to start off things without maximizing quantity of bile generated in the process.

Yikes, I’ve already got a union.

See my prior post on this subject titled Fearing Unions.  Having a union isn’t a guarantee of failure or even of continuous, hampering conflict – at least if you’re fortunate, that is.

Even if the relationship is a disaster, you’re options are limited.  Best get them in focus quickly, and make the best decisions about your future that you can.

I want to get rid of my union.

Why bother?  If the union is weak enough that you can convince the employees to decertify it, then how much trouble is it causing you, really?  Sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, rather than taking actions that may cause them to wake up and bite you.


If you’re a manufacturing executive in today’s world, your chances are probably better than fifty-fifty that you’ll never have to deal with a union.  But just because you aren’t stuck with one doesn’t mean you can ignore the behaviors and concerns that cause employees to organize.  Remember, if you’re regime gives birth to a union, it will certainly be the one you deserve.  28.2

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