In a Pro-Union Environment, Being Proactive Is Key

February 16, 2021

By Matthew Kerzner

While many have high hopes for our new administration in Washington, others have trepidation about potential change. For example, President Biden’s firing of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel could signal to business owners a new approach to dealing with unions—regardless of whether their business is or isn’t a union shop.

In my 25 years as an industrial relations expert, I have worked with many business executives who sought to create organizations that were less likely to form unions. Conversely, I have also worked with many unions on behalf of business owners to negotiate contracts and develop positive working relationships. 

Business owners need to get ahead of workplace changes by assessing their organization’s policies and procedures regarding wages, benefits, working conditions and the likelihood of unionization. If the company is already unionized, be proactive. Evaluate and find win/win relationships, and then move forward. If you’re in a non-union shop, consider the necessary steps to keep it that way. This could mean creating an environment where employees feel they are heard, have a voice in developing and maintaining the culture, and are both paid and treated fairly. Creating such an environment entails:

  • Analyzing your current compensation structure to make sure it remains competitive.
  • Identifying medical, dental and other fringe benefits that are important to employees.
  • Formalizing or enhancing flexible work arrangements for better work-life balance.
  • Developing a safer work environment, particularly in light of COVID-19.
  • Reviewing disciplinary policies to consider a “just cause” approach or a peer review process.

If you are a union shop, think about which changes (e.g., wages, benefits, working conditions) you need to plan for over the next several years—through your current union contract—and develop your negotiation proposals. Here are some dos and don’ts to develop a better working relationship with your union:

  • Strive for win/win negotiations, and include the union in strategic planning conversations so everyone understands the company’s strategic direction.
  • Do not make any changes to wages, benefits or working conditions without first communicating and negotiating such. Give the union a voice at the table.
  • Determine the best approach to communicate with the union to implement change regarding employee issues.
  • Make sure your managers and supervisors understand the collective bargaining agreement and are following it fairly, firmly and consistently.
  • Understand that the union’s job is to represent its members, and seek a true partnership to help create a culture of respect and communication.

Finally, regularly gauge employee engagement and morale. Are you experiencing high absenteeism or employee turnover? It is important to understand that employees may be under intense pressure due to the economy, pandemic and geo-political situation. When people feel unsure, they seek stability, understanding and a sense of community. Make sure your business is a place that provides the sense of safety and belonging that employees are seeking. If you have a union, don’t be afraid to negotiate and work with it in good faith to help maintain your competitive advantage.

If you are management-represented and wish to stay this way, examine your current practices regarding wages, benefits and working conditions; understand how this impacts your workforce. If necessary, consider working with an industrial relations professional to help make the necessary adjustments before you find yourself on one side of the negotiating table discussing union concessions. Smart companies are prepared, proactive and plan. 

About Matthew Kerzner

Matthew Kerzner is a Director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of experience in organizational development with a specialization in assisting family businesses and closely held businesses.