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Union Campaign Communication
When it’s time to negotiate a new union contract, the stress level goes up several notches, and your leaders’ training on maintaining positive employee relations is put to the test. Per the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), you have a legal duty to bargain in good faith with the union, but cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean things will go smoothly.
Months or weeks before the union contract negotiations begin, there are many steps your organization can and should take to prepare for negotiations with the goal of facilitating contract completion. Advance preparations include everything from forming a negotiating team to establishing a productive employee communication process. You can bet the union is going through extensive preparations on their end because they need outcomes that prove to employees the union is useful and are getting value for the union dues they pay.
"By preparing in advance and communicating proactively," Robert Moll, Senior Communications Consultant at IRI Consultants, shares, employers are "better prepared to frame the debate, manage their message, and minimize the risk that can occur if negotiations take a turn for the worse."
An interesting twist to the negotiation process is that there is no legal obligation to reach a mutually agreeable contract. What is required is that you bargain in good faith, and that can take weeks or months or sometimes a year or more, depending on it goes. One of the first steps you will take is forming a negotiating team, and its members should understand their duties and responsibilities. The typical team will include people like the following.
With a negotiations team assembled, you are ready to assess organizational and employee needs and convert them into discussion points.
There are economic and non-economic items negotiated during union contract negotiations.
The economic items include any items that directly cost the organization and/or employees money. The non-economic items concern mostly issues around management rights and obligations and leadership and employee behaviors.
For example, financial items are items like the following:
The non-financial items related actually do have financial impacts, but the specific items are directly related to employee and employer behaviors. They include:
Some of the matters negotiated today emerged during the pandemic. For example, employers and unions now discuss the duration of paid leave for employees for COVID-19 quarantining, shifting workloads when employees are on sick leave due to COVID-19, and how remote workers fit into traditional workplace structures and HR policies.
There is also the issue of the virus vaccination policy, which is likely to come down to mandatory vs. non-mandatory employee vaccines. You may need to negotiate employer-provided resources for remote workers and specific safety procedures for onsite employees, like paying for all personal protection equipment (PPE).
When negotiating the union contract, there are some general points to keep in mind.
This list is just to get you started and give you an idea of the broad spectrum of elements needing an employer-union agreement. Your organization has unique needs that must be addressed.
The management strategy for union contract negotiations is based on having an effective and transparent communication system. Everything you do will revolve around keeping employees informed about the negotiation process, the reasons to support the company proposals made to the union, the positive employee-employer relations that exist, the facts about the union and its demands, and more.
Your management strategy has four basic components:
Through years of experience and networking, the UnionProof team has developed a deep understanding of the contract negotiations process. Following are some tips we picked up along the way.
As can see, the success of the union contract negotiations process is largely dependent on how well your leadership communicates with employees and how well the negotiations team can communicate the employer position on contract items to the union representatives.
Training your leaders is crucial. Hopefully, you have been training them all along on topics like union behaviors, responding to signs of unionization, and employer and employee rights. Weeks or months ahead of the start of the negotiation process is the time to train them on union contract negotiations. Training your managers and supervisors is essential to managing the contract negotiations in a way that supports business objectives.
First, refresh the TIPS and FOE rules training because it’s a guide to what the leaders can and cannot say and do. During the negotiations process, the NLRA applies as much as it does any other time. Violating the NLRA will harm the negotiations process, either extending it, complicating it, or stalling progress while unfair labor practices (ULPs) are filed with the National Labor Relations Board. You’ve probably read about contract negotiations coming to a standstill for weeks and months, and often it’s due to ULPs needing resolution.
Union contract negotiations disrupt your organization in many ways, so one goal is to minimize the disruption and keep employees productive. It is a time of great employee anxiety and uncertainty, and leadership’s consistent messaging and knowledgeable responses are of great importance to preventing things from getting out of control. Robert Moll, Senior Communications Consultant at IRI Consultants, says, “Studies demonstrate that interactive, face-to-face conversations between a supervisor and employee are the most effective communications channel in the workplace. An employer’s communication team can help human resources preview the issues and scenarios managers may face and train them how to communicate effectively during negotiations.”
Of course, the strength of positive employee relations and maintaining a respectful workplace are major influences on how well union contract negotiations go. A unionized business with high employee engagement is more likely to have a successful negotiations process for the simple reason employees know the employer has long-term employee success in mind.
There is also the possibility the union could be decertified at the allowed time in the future. The implication is that leadership training in communication and developing positive employee relations should continue even while union contract negotiations training is in progress.
Train your senior leaders, mid-managers, and supervisors on TIPS and FOE, employee communication, NLRA requirements, and maintaining a positive attitude during a time of possible negativity or conflict. These are critical elements supporting a successful union contract negotiations process. Moll, quoted above, and whose insight helped shape this article, also shared that, "A consistent message, driven by employee communications and reinforced by managers, helps support the organization’s bargaining objectives and keep employees focused on the work at hand."
We offer a multitude resources that are available quickly, including eLearning courses, dark website development, custom videos, information tools, digital communication messaging, and a lot more. The key is to get started long before the first day of contract negotiations.
Walter is Projections’ CEO and the 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.