Practical Tips and Tricks for Managing a Unionized Workforce

While strikes involving high-profile unions like the recently resolved Federal Worker strike are often hot topics in the news, we rarely hear much about the day-to-day relationships between the employer and the union or how those relationships are effectively managed. In this blog, we take a step back from the high-intensity environment of a strike and provide some practical tips and tricks on effectively managing the unionized workforce and the ongoing relationship with a union.

Unionized Workplaces

The number one question I get asked by family, friends and even complete strangers when I tell them I practice labour and employment law is: “What is the difference between labour and employment law?”. Given the passion with which this question is often delivered, this seems to be a burning question on most people’s minds. Ultimately, while labour and employment lawyers all focus on workplace issues and disputes, labour lawyers handle conflicts that arise in workplaces which have a union or unions representing their workers that are bound by the terms of a collective agreement.

Labour law is often focused on helping the parties manage their relationship and find practical solutions to what are often complex problems.

Effectively Managing the Unionized Workplace and Your Relationship with the Union:

Here are some practical tips and tricks for managing your unionized workforce and your relationship with the union:

  1. Understand that there is history between the parties: If you’ve just joined a workplace understand first that there may be a lot of history between the employer and the union. You might enter the workplace at a time of relative harmony or at a time of tension and upheaval. Those around you are sure to share the employer’s perspective on the ongoing relationship and the reasoning behind its current state. The best thing you can do is keep an open mind, treat everyone with the respect they deserve and understand that sometimes the decisions made by both parties are impacted by their prior history. 
  2. Know your Collective Agreement: You won’t be able to effectively manage the unionized workplace without knowing the terms of the collective agreement. It’s difficult to know every single term and how it applies, but at the very least you must be familiar with the terms your department and team are expected to implement. For example, if you regularly hire new union members, you must be familiar with the terms that apply to the hiring process. If there is a team of employees who take care of processes which are bound by the collective agreement, make sure your team understands the applicable terms. 
  3. Communicate within set boundaries: Union executives are often passionate advocates for workers. If they come to you with a question or concern that you either don’t know the answer to or don’t have time to answer right away, let them know you will respond as soon as you are able to do so. A quick acknowledgement of the communication with a promise to follow up can really help in keeping the relationship harmonious. 
  4. Get comfortable with a few well-known proverbs: While you’ve probably heard sayings like  “good fences make good neighbours” or “let bygones be bygones” or “time to turn over a new leaf”, expect to become comfortable with them when it comes to your relationship with the union. At its heart, a unionized workforce is a longterm relationship between two parties. These parties often have diverging interests and have an equal level of passion for their positions. The passion isn’t going anywhere and neither is the opposing party. You don’t have to accept the opposing party’s position but you do have to accept their existence (and respect their passion).  Find ways to work together and maintain the relationship. And finally, even when it feels personal, know when it’s time to let something go and try to turn over a new leaf with the union. 
  5. Be practical when it comes to resolving disputes: While the collective agreement sets out many of the workplace rules, responsibilities, expectations and obligations, you should not be overly rigid when it comes to trying to find resolutions to problems. Try to understand what is important to the union in solving the problem and determine if there is a practical way to settle the matter. 

This is just Part One in a series of blogs on the topic of labour law. We invite you to look out for the next part and if you have any questions in the meantime, please get in touch