Staffing Management

10 Effective Tips for Managing in a Unionized Setting

By Keith McCown

Jun. 27, 2018

There’s a lot of mythology about the difficulty of union-management relations. One way or another, I have been involved with union-management relations since 1975.  Experience teaches that managing in a unionized setting is not all that daunting if you can follow ten simple rules.

  1. Tell the truth.

Never squander your credibility.  Trust is one of the most important factors in union-management relations.  Deals cannot get done without trust – and trust requires honesty.  Even protective or evasive “white lies” or “sugar-coating” about difficult subjects can erode trust and credibility.

  1. Management runs the place.

The Union does not run the organization and generally you do not need to ask the Union’s permission to do things, yet some workplaces have this exactly backward.  Tact, forethought and consideration of the Union’s role are still important, but management runs the place.

  1. Maintain productive behavior.

You always have the right to expect proper performance and to maintain a workplace without serious interference in getting work done.  It is a “workplace” – getting the work done is the primary consideration.

  1. Use the “work now, grieve later” rule as a guide.

“Work now, grieve later” is a fundamental rule that says a lot about the basic dynamics within a unionized employer.   Decades ago a well-known arbitrator wrote: “The workplace is not a debating society.”  Management has a right to expect orders to be followed, not debated.  It is almost always legitimate to say, “Get it done, and file a grievance later if you want to.”  There are exceptions if the order is dangerous or intentionally degrading or humiliating, but the “work now – grieve later” rule is a useful microcosm of the fundamental power allocation in a unionized work setting.

  1. Rely on your good judgment.

The law of labor relations — and generally all of employment law — has a huge component of simple common sense.  Try to be fair, and trust your judgment when in doubt.  Good judgment often carries the day when the legalities of a situation are scrutinized later.

  1. Don’t respond in kind to pettiness and provocations.

This requires avoiding grudges and tolerating some abrasive activity without responding in the same vein.  Be the adult on the room.  Hold your own temper.  Do not stoop to the level of the people who misbehave.  Good tone and good behavior almost always achieve better results and will always present a better picture if there are legal proceedings, including grievances and arbitration.

  1. Overlook personal attacks, rudeness and anger.

Protected concerted activity” is very generously construed under the labor laws, and “shop talk” is given wide latitude.  Profanity, insults, anger and personal attacks can easily erupt in union-management meetings, and sometimes the misbehavior seems to call for a disciplinary response.  But the law often protects the bad speech, and often prohibits punishment even in the name of maintaining respect, decorum or civil discourse.   Standing up and walking out is always permissible.  Threatening or actually imposing discipline may cross the line.

  1. Do not be afraid to talk things out.

It is difficult to say something utterly irrevocable in the process of union-management relations.  There are very few truly “gotcha” or “third rail” words that will destroy management rights.  Talking things out is rarely damaging, and more often helps reach solutions (unless, of course, someone is trying to turn the workplace into a debating society).  In the process of talking things out, honestly hedging your comments is also almost always OK: “I don’t know for sure, but I think …” or “… I need to check …”

  1. Do not make quick decisions unless you have to.

Snap or immediate decisions can often be traps.  “I hear you, I’ll get back to you,” is almost always an appropriate response.  Very few labor relations decisions actually need to be made on the spot.  Don’t be boxed in by a persistent demand for an immediate decision.  Fall back and consult.

  1. Good communication with the union is invaluable.

Make a habit of giving the union a “heads up” before something happens.  This may seem like an affront to management rights, but it is actually one of the most valuable management tactics for achieving desired results.  This also adds to your credibility.  Thinking about and then actually inquiring about how the Union leadership will react and what they may have to react to is always a pathway to better labor relations.

Keith McCown is a partner at Boston-based Morgan, Brown & Joy. Comment below or email

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