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As an HR professional, it is important to be prepared for any challenge that may present itself. One of these challenges may come in the form of working with a labor union. It’s crucial to understand the laws and practices behind unions in order to avoid lawsuits, strikes and ethical violations. This article will talk about unions, their history, HR responsibilities concerning them, and general tips on working with labor unions.

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 guaranteed the right of workers to form unions in the United States. Many industries, typically manufacturing or production, or the 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.

Working with labor unions can be very tricky and requires a lot of due diligence in keeping accurate records. Consider using Eddy People to ensure your records are kept safe and organized!

History of Labor Unions

The history of unions, or at least the concept, begins hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. The idea that power in the masses can pressure organizations or their leaders to change their 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 quell 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, their 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 union members. 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 years ago, their power and influence are 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.

How a Labor Union Works

Unions are based on the idea of collective bargaining—when a group of people comes together to achieve a common goal, they have more power than if they had made their voices heard individually. Today, unions are most common in government, transportation, and utilities industries.

Unions are formed democratically, with leaders being elected by other members. Union members pay dues that help cover costs, including the salaries of paid union staff. In exchange for dues, the union works to ensure that workers are paid fairly and have good working conditions. 

A union works with an employer to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that sets out the terms of employment for a specific period of time. This usually takes multiple rounds of negotiations. Once the CBA is signed by both parties, neither can change the terms without the other’s approval. Once the time period is over, negotiations for a new CBA begin. 

Some of the issues unions address include:

Responsibilities of HR Departments Working with a Labor Union

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 write 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’s 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 an “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.

Tips for Working Effectively With Labor Unions

Here are some tips for HR representatives who might be working with a labor union.

Tip 1: Avoid/Prevent a Labor Union by Treating Employees Well

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 of reasons employees should be wary of forming a union. Unions could:

  1. Be very costly for employees and require dues to be paid out of employee’s check
  2. Prohibit informal and private conversations between employees and management
  3. Add another layer of bureaucracy for employees to deal with
  4. Base all benefits, such as vacations or pay rates, on 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.

Tip 2: Be Careful About What You Tell Employees About the Labor 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.

Tip 3: Document and Keep Everything

As HR handles grievances, investigations, and other issues, the union may have the right to review all documents concerning its 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.

Learn how to keep your documents safe and organized to avoid problems in the future

Tip 4: Follow the Labor 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.

Tip 5: Labor 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.

Tip 6: Understand Your State and Local Government Regulations Concerning Labor 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.

Examples of Labor Unions

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 there were 14 million union members in the United States. While the number of union members in the U.S. has declined in recent years, there are still many labor unions that are millions of members strong. Here are the five largest labor unions in the United States. 

  • National Education Association (NEA). NEA, the largest union in the United States, represents education professionals such as public school teachers, administrators, and faculty members at colleges and universities. It also serves non-educators who work in schools, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and nurses. NEA has over three million members. 
  • Service Employees International Union (SEIU). This union involves workers in three different fields—healthcare, public services, and property services—with healthcare workers making up over half of its members. SEIU supports the Affordable Care Act and wants to see the minimum wage increase.
  • American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME is the largest union of public employees in the United States. It focuses on issues such as pension benefits, minimum wage, unemployment benefits, and more.
  • The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters Union). One of the most influential unions in United States history, the Teamsters Union serves warehouse workers, truck drivers, and other trade workers. 
  • United Food and Commercial Workers. Because this union was formed by combining three existing unions, it has a wide membership. Sectors involved include grocery, retail, chemical, and more. 

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Unions

Union membership has been decreasing since its peak in the 1960s.

Unions can be very robust and established. They come with their own set of lawyers and laws that protect them. Make sure you understand your local state laws regarding unions, as they significantly vary between states. You can see a list of specific rights regarding unions and employers on the website for the National Labor Relations Board at https://www.nlrb.gov/.

Chase carries HR experience in training, recruiting, labor and employee relations, team leadership, and as a generalist. He is always building and expanding on his skills as well as looking for ways to augment his network. When he can, he looks for ways to give back by mentoring new/upcoming HR professionals.

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