Union Versus Management — Win or Lose?

A common mentality is that the relationship between Union and Management is like a rivalry at the final playoff hockey game between two different teams. This mentality in Union environments may lead to each ‘side’ complaining about the other and considering the other as the enemy. As a result, politics, dissatisfaction and conflict escalates. No win-win.

May our thinking be flawed?

Words are powerful and how we think translates into how we behave. For example, you may believe that an employee is being ‘difficult’ and as a result, continue to have friction when communicating with them. Likely they think you are being difficult as well. Dropping the word “Versus” may in fact be the first step in playing on the same team so that performance and mutual success is optimized.

I worked with a union shop of various trades in one dysfunctional team. The intent of the workshop was to create harmony and respect among the workers. When the workshop started and I walked in with my flowery patterned shirt, I felt negative judgements and preconceived notions were creating a dense fog in the room. After a short while and some trust-building, the fog cleared and I realized – and so did they – that like any team, most wanted to:

  • be valued for what they do
  • be consistently treated fairly and with respect
  • be trusted to do the right work
  • be happy at work and to drop the back-stabbing
  • have a voice and engage with management on ideas and problem-solving

Thankfully, the group left the day united due to feeling heard, seeing that others care and realizing we are all just people doing what we can to live in peace.

If you are a manager or unionized employee, this article provides some tips on how to build connection versus dissatisfaction.

  1. Build Relationships: Create a culture of vulnerability, respect, caring and mutual gain by getting to know your people.Be transparent and realize that personal life matters, and be willing to talk about it. Too often we focus on work, positions in our thinking and titles rather than knowing we are all different. We each have our unique story and way of thinking. Being curious about others, who they are, their personality and likes/dislikes as well as sharing ours creates connection. Remember, you are on the same team.
  2. Stop Worrying: Many union employees transition to management careers where they manage those that they used to work with.The feeling is that the perception may be ‘foe, not friend’. As a manager, it is important to understand that the relationships are still there, but boundaries need to be set in how to work together -this is like with any work environment. Yes, employees may resent you or talk behind your back. Stand up tall, realize your trigger points, manage your emotions and be resilient. This may contribute to greater respect.
  3. Show up: Realize managers have an important role in making sure jobs are protected, work is done, customers are happy and that employees voices are heard.This all takes a great deal of work, cross functional relationships and strategizing. Book time in your calendar for this work and increase the time as a manager in the open — talking to employees, understanding their concerns and empowering them to succeed.
  4. Problem-Solve: Bring issues and opportunities to your employees and get their ideas.I once worked with a municipality on a huge organizational change. When in front of the union employees facilitating a discussion on their thoughts of the change, they couldn’t stop talking. They really cared and were grateful to have a say in the matter. Many employees have the answers you may be seeking – engage them.
  5. Provide Recognition: Too often we hear from each other only when things go wrong.It is important to address problems and know that recognition of good behaviours may lead to fewer problems. Employees want to know that they are making a difference. If you have something to say, say it. Same with constructive feedback – don’t hold back.But if you talk behind peoples’ backs, nothing changes and problems spread like weeds. Consider that if people talk behind the backs of others, what might they be saying about you? Politics erode trust and recognition grows respect.

It is important to understand Unions were created for a reason and have helped build a world where respect, fairness and valued work is no longer an option, it is a requirement. We all want others to be grateful for what we do and how we contribute. Regardless of your beliefs, Union Employees and Managers are just people, wanting the most out of life. Remember, you are on the same team and not in a hockey playoff.

Kwela Leadership’s Team Optimization process and our Coaching for Performance workshop both optimize teamwork by reinforcing many of the points mentioned in this article.

Glen Sollors, Partner