Managing in a Unionized Workplace

Getting Things Done in a Constructive Way

Union contract and gavel.

© Veer
vale

When groups of workers join together to form a union, make sure that you know where you stand.

Imagine that you've just walked into the office and you see that one of your people, Mike, is sitting at his desk without any work to do. So, you ask him to help another team member finish an urgent job.

Mike refuses, saying that taking on a different role, even for a day, is not allowed under the union contract. He tells you that, if you want him to do another team member's work, then you must talk to the union, as it's not part of his job description.

You've only been in this role for a week, and now you're stressed and confused about what you can and can't ask your people to do!

This might seem like an extreme example to many people, but it demonstrates that it can be complicated to manage unionized workers, especially if you're new to this type of working environment. In this article, we'll look at the complexities and challenges of managing in a unionized workplace.

Note:

This article is meant as a general guide only. Union rights vary widely depending on your region, state, and country, and, most importantly, on the agreement that your organization has in place with unionized workers. Please seek the guidance of your human resources department or an employment lawyer if you need help with specific laws or situations.

Also, different unions and different union officials have different approaches. Some unions may be very traditional, confrontational, and even – in some countries – violent; while others may be more flexible and supportive of the long-term success of the organization.

What is a Union?

Before workers began banding together, working conditions were often very poor. People could work long hours for low pay, and with few benefits. They may even have worked in factories that were dangerous, and where workplace accidents were common. In fact, workers had few rights at all!

In response to such poor conditions, workers began joining together to pressure their employers to improve their work environment – they began forming unions.

Unions have a long history. In the U.K. people started forming during the Industrial Revolution, but these didn't become legal until 1867. Unions emerged in the U.S. in the 1870s.

A union is a group of workers who have come together to make collective decisions about their work and their working conditions. The union is democratic: the members elect their leaders through a voting process. Through collective bargaining, these leaders negotiate with their employer over wages, working conditions, safety, hours, and other benefits, on behalf of their members.

Unions are based on the idea that a group is stronger than an individual. As a result of early union bargaining there are a variety of benefits that workers can enjoy today (depending on their location), such as a minimum wage, workplace safety standards, overtime, health care, and an eight-hour workday. And, as a result of unions, union members often receive higher pay and get better benefits than equivalent non-unionized workers.

In some cases, unions can be highly politicized; and they may be in alliance with specific political parties.

When an employer refuses to negotiate with a union, or when the two can't reach a compromise, the union may go on strike. In some countries, strikes are often the last resort as workers may lose pay as a result of them. However, in others, union strikes are common and can be violent, resulting in injuries and even deaths.

In many cases, members pay monthly or yearly dues to their union, and the union uses these funds to pay workers a salary during a strike. It also uses these funds to provide other benefits, such as discounts on other services, legal consultations, and additional training.

Prevalence

Membership in unions varies widely, depending on the country you live in, local employee legislation, and the extent to which unions have power to protect employees. Here are some recent examples of union membership in different countries (as a percentage of overall workforce):

  • U.S. – 11.3 percent.
  • New Zealand – 20.8 percent.
  • Canada – 28.8 percent.
  • Sweden – 67.7 percent.
  • U.K. – 25.8 percent.

However, some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have no unionized workers at all.

Union Rights Around the World

The rights of unionized workers can vary widely depending on your industry, region, and country. Laws, rules, and regulations can also be incredibly complex. These rights are constantly changing, as state and national governments enact laws to protect or diminish the rights of union workers.

A good example of the global differences between unions is the "closed-shop policy." A closed shop is a form of union security agreement, where an organization agrees to hire union members only, and employees must be part of the union to remain employed.

In the U.S. and U.K., closed shops are illegal. However, they are legal in many provinces of Canada and of Australia.

Challenges

A number of challenges can arise when managing in a unionized environment. One of the biggest is...

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