By Lynne MacDonald
Labor unions protect workers’ rights and negotiate for better employment terms and conditions through collective bargaining. A healthy working relationship between management and union officials is vital to prevent and resolve workplace disputes. The human resources department supports, guides and trains managers to help them maintain effective working relationships with unions.
When a workforce becomes unionized, the company negotiates a labor agreement with local union officials. The labor agreement governs the relationship between the company and the union. It lists the items that are subject to collective bargaining, such as wages, benefits, discipline and training. It also reserves certain items to the sole authority of management, such as which products to produce and the location of production. HR helps managers prepare for negotiations by gathering relevant data and helping plan the bargaining strategy.
While the labor agreement is the foundation for the relationship, most of the day-to-day interaction between the union and management involves the practicalities of implementation, as no agreement can account for every eventuality. When a dispute arises, the union raises a grievance on behalf of its member or group of members. HR supports supervisors to resolve grievances in a positive and constructive manner by providing training on the content of the labor agreement and the skills required to deal with grievances rationally and objectively.
Traditionally, the relationship between management and the union has been adversarial, with both parties engaged in position-based bargaining. Increasingly, companies are implementing nonadversarial negotiations, such as interest-based bargaining. Interest-based bargaining requires parties to invest time and effort to understand each other’s interests and helps them develop a more constructive relationship over time. HR can assist managers to move toward interest-based bargaining by providing training and coaching. HR professionals can also support managers by sourcing best-practice examples of interest-based bargaining from their HR network.
Unions have a significant effect on management decision-making, challenge supervisory authority and prevent a company from formulating HR policy unilaterally. Such restrictions can create tension between management and the union. However, managers benefit from meeting regularly with union officials to build their relationship and discuss forthcoming changes in the workplace that will impact employees’ terms and conditions. HR can facilitate communication between management and union officials by organizing meetings, providing guidance and sharing expertise.