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What Is a Labor Union?
Labor Unions, sometimes referred to as trade unions, are a group of workers who band together to create pressure in numbers in order to enact changes within the workplace. These changes may be geared towards wages, hours, PTO, policies, and more.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 has guaranteed the right of workers to form unions in the United States. Many industries, typically manufacturing or production, or public sector, have large and influential unions.
Unions may be very organized and established and it is crucial to understand how they work in order to effectively handle the challenges they present. Human resources is a key contact point between unions and the company they are built around, and it will be largely up to HR to maintain and negotiate its relationship. As of 2020, 10.8% of US workers were members of a union.
History of Unions
The history of unions, or at least the concept, begins hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. The idea that power in masses can pressure organizations or its leaders to change its policies or wages runs deep into human history. But it wasn’t until recent history that unions became a legal right.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, most organized labor unions were put down swiftly and violently. Governments took a major role in disbanding these unions, oftentimes sending military force to quail them. In one case in 1831 in Wales, a labor protest against coal mining conditions led to 24 dead and 26 injured when the army was called to step in.
The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s contributed to a large increase in manufacturing jobs. Before this time, most people were farm workers, but as large factories and corporations became more commonplace, its workers became more organized. Low wages, excessive hours, and dangerous working conditions prompted an increase in organized activity.
As the US became more industrialized, public opinion swayed toward a more pro-union mindset. Finally, in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt passed the National Labor Relations Act, which established the right for workers to form private unions. With unions now being a human right, their power and influence increased exponentially.
Union membership and power seemed to reach its peak around the 1950s and 1960s, with one third of all American workers being a union member. Many labor laws and employee rights were achieved during this time, since all the power seemed to be in the hands of the workers, rather than management. Soon after this time, union membership started declining and continues to decline to this day.
Although unions may not be the force they once were 60 year ago, their power and influence is still heavily felt in various industries. You may find yourself working in an industry where one does exist, and it is crucial that you are prepared to handle the various challenges they may present.
Responsibilities of HR Departments Working with a Unionized Workforce
As an HR rep, you will do a large portion of the work associated with unions. This section will go over some of these responsibilities.
1. Establish a Contract (When Possible) and Uphold It.
An important part of the relationship between a company and its union is the ability to come to an agreement about policies and procedures and writing them in a contract.
This will allow both sides to have a specific set of rules to abide by and avoid grey areas. Many times these contracts will include guidelines about pay raises, holiday or vacation pay, internal job postings, procedures concerning grievances, working hours, break schedules, benefits, anti-discrimination laws and much more.
It is best to be as specific as possible to avoid any confusion. A contract should include a timeframe that it will be enforced. Once this time expires, it will be up to the company and the union to negotiate a new contract.
A critical part of a union-company contract is to include a no-strike clause. This will ensure that employees cannot go on strike against the company during the established timeframe. Most strikes that do occur happen after a contract has expired, and current negotiations are ongoing without either side willing to agree on a new one.
When negotiating a union contract, it’s recommended that the company consults a labor law/human capital management specialist or a certified lawyer to aid as necessary. Once a contract is written and signed, both sides are expected to follow it closely.
If you are a baseline HR generalist, it is unlikely that you will be a part of this process. Most of this responsibility will fall on senior management, VPs, and senior HR business partners.
2. Handle Grievances/Disciplinary Action
It is likely that the union contract will contain a strict set of guidelines on how grievances or disciplinary action are handled within the company. For example, the contract may require a union representative to be present as a witness during all disciplinary conversations and/or all investigations be initiated within three days of an incident happening.
If an employee wishes to file a complaint against a co-worker or bring up some other grievance in the workplace, they have the right to do it exclusively through the company internal systems, but may also bring it forward to the union and ask them to aid in the process. When a grievance is filed to the union, it will be their responsibility to notify the company and to represent the employee.
Grievances should be handled in a timely manner and can usually be resolved quickly and internally. In rare cases, the union may decide to bring a case to a government court.
3. Deduct Union Dues
Unions are expensive to maintain and it is likely that employees will be required to pay monthly fees if they wish to be a member. Payroll may be asked to deduct these fees from union employees’ paychecks which in turn are routed to the union organization. Make sure all applicable employees’ pay stubs appropriately reflect these deductions in a clear manner.
4. Maintain a Positive Relationship With the Union
Maintaining a positive relationship with a union should be a key focus for HR reps. Unions will designate representatives to handle union affairs. These representatives may be regular workers who serve in roles both in the company and the union, or they may just be full-time union workers. As a general rule, let cooler heads prevail in all situations.
Acting in a professional and honest manner will develop rapport with the union and will lead to less problematic situations. Be willing to see both sides to an argument, and don’t strictly see the union as “enemy.” Once a union is officially established, it is very hard if not impossible to get rid of, so you might as well work in conjunction the best you can.
Extra Tips for Working Effectively With Unions
1. Avoiding/Preventing a Union
It is in the best financial interest of a company to avoid unionization of the employees. It’s important to note that unions stem from employees’ feelings of unfair treatment, so if you can avoid these feelings, you can avoid a union.
As an HR rep, you may eventually accept a job offer from a company or industry that already has an established union. If so, this section does not apply to you.
Union activity is best snuffed out in the beginning stages of formation. This usually comes in the form of employees trying to organize themselves. You may catch someone passing out flyers in the parking lot after work, or creating a social media page and gathering followers. This is the crucial moment to take action. A strategy should be devised to educate employees on the negative consequences of unions.
The University of Minnesota book Human Resources Management gives an insightful list into reasons employees should be wary of forming a union. Unions could:
- Be very costly for employees and require dues to be paid out of employee’s check
- Prohibit Informal and private conversations between employees and management
- Add another layer of bureaucracy for employees to deal with
- Base all benefits such as vacations or pay rate to seniority only
Additionally, a formal meeting could be organized with the employees. Let them be heard. Consider implementing changes, if feasible. It may be worth it in the long run to allow some changes at the moment rather than face a future with a union.
Unions require an application to the National Labor Relations Board and a 30% vote by employees to be approved. Avoid letting it get to a vote.
2. Be Careful About What You Tell Employees About the Union
If your company has a union, some employees will approach HR with such questions as “should I join the union?” It’s crucial that HR remain neutral toward the situation and not sway an employee to either side. Simply state something like, “Joining a union is your legal right, and if you want more information, please speak with a union representative.”
Any perceived bias or attitudes toward an official union can be the subject of legal targeting by the union. Allow employees to gather information about the union from the union itself, and not the company.
3. Document and Keep Everything
As HR handles grievances, investigations and other issues, the union may have the right to review all documents concerning their members. It is imperative that HR keep accurate records so that it protects the company. Never throw away or shred important or confidential information, as it may be brought up at a later date, possibly in court. HR’s responsibility to protect the company through its record keeping is never stronger than when dealing with a union.
4. Follow the Union Contract
Almost all problems can be avoided if the company (and union) both strictly abide by the union contract. Do not cut corners, even if you think you can get away with it. This could lead to irreparable harm and expose the company to a lawsuit.
5. Unions Can Be Very Large and Sophisticated; Do Not Underestimate Them
Some industries have large and developed unions. They may have professional legal teams, their own health insurance plans for members, retirement and pensions, and heavy influence in the local government.
Going to battle with an established union may also be considered going to battle with the surrounding politicians and press. Be very cautious and careful about the way you approach union-company relations.
6. Understand Your State and Local Government Regulations Concerning Unions
States differ in laws they have concerning unions. Some have laws that promote unions, while others discourage them.
Understanding your state’s laws about unions can affect the way your company approaches them. Ignorance will damage a company’s potential.
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