What are the Challenges Unions Present to Human Resources?

When labor unions enter the picture, the challenges unions present for Human Resources management in any business will significantly increase. It's not just the extra tracking and reporting that accompanies unionization. It's the changes a labor union brings to employer-employee relationships.  

Often, employees who vote for a union don't realize the full extent of the impact of unions on their workplace because labor unions gloss over many things when trying to get employee votes. They don't discuss topics like how higher wages and benefits could lead to layoffs or employees must settle any issues addressed in the collective bargaining agreement through a union representative. HR managers must revise all employee-related policies to maintain a balance between employer and employee NLRA rights. HR managers are also tasked with ensuring leaders at all levels are current in labor relations training and procedures are redesigned to keep the business in compliance with the collective bargaining agreement. Unionization, in other words, can lead to major changes for employees and management.  

When a Union Enters the Picture, HR Management Gets More Complex 

There is no doubt that labor unions present challenges Human Resources (HR) management, and the complications begin before there is a formal union organizing campaign. The workforce dynamics change when employees begin talking to union representatives. At the same time, your organizational leaders can't interfere with the right of employees to talk to unions and organize should they desire to do so.  

The National Labor Relations Act says you can't interfere with, restrain or coerce employees to exercise their rights to organize, form, join or assist a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes. In addition, you can't stop employees from working together to improve their working conditions or employment terms. Do your supervisors know they can't even question their employees about their union sympathies because it could appear you're trying to intimidate them (think "chilling effect")?  

Long before employees vote in a union election, a lot changes. Your HR team must now take a new look, with the labor union's perspective, at the organization's current status on wages, scheduling, working conditions, safety, grievance procedures, promotion policies, career planning, and areas like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and social responsibility. Though you may have solid legal HR policies and procedures, you must now assume the labor union's perspective in order to anticipate their areas of focus. One of the facts about unions today is that they no longer concentrate on traditional topics like hours of work and compensation. For example, they may encourage employees to unionize because management is paid too much or the company utilizes suppliers that are not unionized. 

By assuming a different perspective, HR managers can better prepare for employee questions, develop or improve an employee-facing website that presents the organization's perspective on unions and the facts about unions and avoid Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges. For example, you determine a particular employee is promoting a labor union. You can't reassign the employee to a position where the person will have less contact with coworkers, nor can you purposely make the person's job more difficult.  

The minute a union becomes involved in your business in any way, HR management is impacted. It shouldn't take a union organizing campaign to prompt action. It's advisable to prepare for potential union organizing because events can happen quickly. Ideally, you have union-proof resources always ready in anticipation of labor union activity, making it easier to face the challenges unions present to Human Resources management.  

The minute a union becomes involved in your business in any way, HR management is impacted. It's critical to be proactive and prepared.

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Enumerating the Challenges  

 Hopefully, you can recognize the signs of union organizing, making that the first challenge to overcome. As mentioned, many new challenges are presented long before a union organizing campaign is initiated. Once a union begins a union organizing campaign and/or employees vote for a union, HR management is looking at the following 11 challenges.  

Current Human Resources policies concerning employee recruiting, hiring, work scheduling, job responsibilities, termination, promotion, wages, and benefits were based on realistic financial needs. The union will want changes that are likely to cost the business money, like higher wages and flexible scheduling, more rigid job descriptions, and fewer employees classified as supervisors so they can join the bargaining unit.  

Revision of the grievance procedure is needed to add provisions for union participation in a grievance resolution process should the union representative need to be present.    

  • Talent management leaders must anticipate changes in job descriptions and/or less flexibility concerning asking employees to do certain things, like temporarily assuming a coworker's job responsibility when the coworker is out sick or on vacation or revising a work schedule to fill labor gaps. 
  • The utilization of gig workers or subcontractors and temporary workers is usually objectionable to unions because these workers normally don't get benefits, aren't limited in the hours they can work and aren't eligible for traditional labor union membership. The HR management staffing function is affected, which equates to less flexibility.
  • Union dues collection, accounting, reporting, and transmittal must be added to the payroll and HR department systems. In some situations, the dues-paying requirements can cause conflict among union vs. non-union employees in a workforce, creating new management issues.  

Are All Employees Required to Pay Union Dues?

A common question and matter of contention is whether an employee is required to pay union dues. The answer, as usual, isn't simple. You can't be forced to join a union, but if you don't work in a Right to Work state, you may have to pay union dues anyway. This is based on the premise that the labor union represents all employees when there is a collective bargaining agreement.  

Some union contracts require all employees to join the union or pay a portion of union dues called "agency fees." This presents the challenge of recruiting and hiring people who are willing to accept these employment conditions. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation points out that, "Most employees are not told by their employer and union that full union membership cannot lawfully be required. In Pattern Makers v. NLRB, 473 US 95 (1985), the United States Supreme Court held that union members have the right to resign their union membership at any time." The HR management challenge is helping employees understand the law without making them feel like you're interfering with their NLRA rights.  

  1. Under the current federal administration, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is pro-union, as frequently discussed by the Projections team. As a result, the NLRB is rapidly changing existing labor relations regulations and guidances in favor of unions. For HR management, the challenge is tracking and staying ahead of the changes that could significantly impact talent management policies.  
  2. All managers and supervisors must ensure employee productivity remains at least equal to what it was before unionization. This is a complicated challenge because unions can impact productivity in several ways. When work schedules, leave time policies, and job responsibilities change, productivity can also change.  

For example, employees are dissatisfied with a seniority-based promotion system, and unhappy employees are less productive. Unions may also drive more restrictive work practices that prevent leadership from introducing new work practices that increase productivity to offset negotiated higher wages. Or unions create a lack of trust between employees and management, which lowers productivity. 

Unions Can Create Trust Challenges Between Managers and Employees

  • It can become more challenging to keep high potential employees motivated in their pursuit of a career in your organization when promotion policies are based on seniority first rather than merit. 
  • Unions that influence worker attitudes towards the workplace are likely to change in some respects. Depending on how the attitudes change, the workplace culture might be negatively impacted, in addition to damaging positive employee relations.  
  • Many decisions made concerning organizational performance must go through collective bargaining because employees are inevitably involved. This hinders timely leadership decision-making and sometimes isn't necessary but must be done anyway. 
  • HR management gets even more challenging should the union call a strike or employees protest via a walkout. A protected strike, picket, or protest is legal when it's for economic reasons or to protest a ULP by the employer. Walkouts or protests by non-union employees are usually not legal at work because they interfere with work and disrupt business operations. However, any strike, protest, or picket leads to difficult HR management decisions, like whether to replace economic strikers and how to fill in labor gaps created by unfair labor practice strikers who can't be discharged or replaced.  

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Leadership Training at the Core of Successful HR Management 

Non-union companies have developed various strategies to maintain worker satisfaction, including establishing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to give diverse employees a voice. They've also established flexible work schedules, develop digital communications systems, encourage participative decision-making, and increased employee job autonomy. 

However, without leadership training in labor relations, all these efforts may still lead to unionization when employees are convinced they're not respected, taken advantage of, aren't working in a safe environment, and/or could be earning more or getting more benefits through a collective voice. Even a workplace with employees who are currently satisfied with their job responsibilities can turn to unions when they believe their manager or supervisor makes decisions that hurt them in some way or the company is not practicing social equity or environmental responsibility. It reflects how much more complicated it is today to be a business leader.   

Once a union is involved before, during, or after a union organizing campaign, your leaders must have a deep understanding of all the aspects of labor relations to avoid missteps that drive unionization or lead to expensive legal problems, including a rash of ULP charges. 

Leadership labor relations training is crucial to staying union-free and effectively managing a unionized workforce. Labor relations training includes training on topics like: 

challenges due to unions

Labor Relations Training Gives Leaders Necessary Communication Skills

Labor relations training is just as much about developing effective leadership communication behaviors as it is about learning the law and union behaviors. Whether unionized or union-free, your organizational leaders need great communication skills.  

  • Frontline supervisor's role in employee relations and union relations 
  • Positive employee relations through relationship building 
  • Coaching as a leadership skill 
  • Developing a positive organizational culture 
  • Communicating effectively with a hybrid workforce using digital communications 
  • Motivating employees, so they maintain or improve productivity 
  • Avoiding grievances  
  • Communicating employee progressive discipline  
  • Learning how to give and receive constructive feedback 
  • Learning the right words to use and the words to avoid when talking to employees (we call them "wise words") 
  • Engaging employees through positive communication skills  

It's also important to access labor relations resources so management stays on top of the labor relations trends, NLRB decisions, labor union perspectives, and employee expectations in today's workforce. This kind of information helps with designing the most effective leadership training program for a particular business.  

Small Businesses Face Unique Challenges Due to Unions 

Increasingly, workforces in small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) are organizing. They are susceptible to independent workers' unions that are fronted by a national labor union, but an emerging trend is for big labor unions to target very small businesses. Fifty-five employees at the bookstore Politics and Prose signed union cards with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, for example, and filed a petition with the NLRB to hold a union election. So, the challenges unions pose for Human Resources management are not limited to large businesses, but there are additional considerations to mention. 

For small businesses, the impact of unions on Human Resources management tends to be exponential.

Human Resources management is often the responsibility of one HR professional who is unlikely to have experience managing a unionized workforce. 

A small workforce often has good relations with management and between coworkers, but the union purposefully creates discord and changes the dynamics.  

  • Small business owners who wear a number of hats are now forced to take on new duties related to managing in a union environment, taking them away from running the business. 
  • Employees who voluntarily accepted responsibilities out of personal interest and career growth opportunities are now limited to language in the collective bargaining agreement concerning job descriptions. 
  • Even small, unplanned increases in wages and benefits, forced work restructuring, schedule changes, and purchase of additional required supplies and equipment can have a severe financial impact on the business.  

Alt-labor groups are also active. Though they are not traditional labor unions, they act like one when they initiate activities like voluntary employee walkouts.  

Leadership skills #training is the key to developing #positiveemployeerelations and #employee #engagement. #leadershipdevelopment #elearning

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Leadership Communication Skills for Meeting HR Management Challenges 

There are many challenges concerning unionization, but always remember that all challenges are manageable. Recognizing the ways unions present challenges for Human Resources management is important to understanding the need to union proof your business. Leadership skills training is the key to developing positive employee relations and employee engagement which are crucial to staying union-free.

Our Labor Relations team provides you the experience and perspective you need to create the most effective positive employee relations strategy for your company.

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.