What Does a Labor Relations Specialist Do?

Checking ZipRecruiter, one of the largest online talent recruitment companies, reveals thousands of job openings listed for a Labor Relations Consultant position. Also called Labor Relations Specialist, Labor and Employee Relations Consultant, and many other similar titles, businesses of varying sizes are trying to fill this position because of its importance to staying union-free or working effectively with a union. While some companies choose to retain a consultant or a Labor Relations Attorney on a contract basis, many have a Labor Relations Specialist as a permanent position. 

A few of the job descriptions don't mention unions. Still, in most cases, the Labor Relations Consultant's primary responsibility is helping a business stay union-free, or if already unionized, serving as an essential liaison between management and the workforce. To successfully fulfill the role, the in-house Labor Relations Specialist, utilizing the resources of companies like UnionProof and A Better Leader, focuses on promoting positive employee relations to develop a high level of employee engagement and positive workplace culture.

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Why Hire a Labor Relations Specialist?

ZipRecruiter provides a good concise description of a Labor Relations Consultant. It says the consultant advises management on labor policies and informs employees of labor union resources. The specialist also investigates grievances regarding potentially unfair labor practices. Various posted job descriptions say things like:

  • Serve as a strategic labor consultant to local operational leaders who face organizing
  • Facilitating compliance with regulatory requirements (adhere to labor laws)
  • Resolve highly-controversial and sensitive workplace issues
  • Assist management with addressing formal grievances and monitor disciplinary actions to ensure legal and union contract compliance
  • Consult on contract administration and contract interpretation as issues arise
  • Provide labor-related leadership training
  • Research, compile, and analyze workforce and industry labor data
  • Participate in labor-management committees
  • Address signs of union organizing activity
  • Deliver technical training on labor relations and the Collective Bargaining Agreement
  • Implement negotiated ad hoc agreements, i.e., closing a business facility, workforce downsizing, etc.
  • Provide long-term views concerning the impact of business decisions on labor
  • Partner with the Human Resources function 
  • Conduct union vulnerability assessments
  • Support collective bargaining negotiations and contract implementation

Some job descriptions focus on grievances, disciplinary action, and problem-solving, but in all cases, the Labor Relations Specialist is a liaison between management and employees. This position's real goal is to promote positive employee relations, which in turn encourages employee engagement. It's this responsibility that makes the role important to union and non-union businesses. In a non-union company, the specialist strives to manage employee-related issues in a way that makes unionizing unnecessary. In a unionized business, the specialist strives to create a new union contract, at the end of the current contract, unnecessary by building employee trust in the employer. 

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Creating a Culture

Several job descriptions for a Labor Relations Consultant mention "culture." A position at the University of California Berkeley is titled "Employee and Labor Relations Consultant, People & Culture." In addition to the previous section's responsibilities, the Berkeley position is expected to use development opportunities beyond training to create deeper employee engagement, higher trust, and better performance. 

Banner Health describes the Labor Relations Consultant position as one that helps to drive workforce engagement, culture development, and talent management strategies. The job description also says the position serves as a feedback loop between management and the workforce, demonstrating the importance of effective communication between the employer and employees.

Your organizational culture is the context for employee relations. We have developed a UnionProof certification course to ensure organizations have access to resources that cover every area of labor relations needed to develop a union proof culture. Anyone can complete the certification, which means your organization can select a person or persons who can master the skills required to help keep unions out or help your organization live with a union environment. It discusses attorneys, consultants, persuaders, and content providers' roles because different companies take different approaches to ensure a labor relations specialist is available in some capacity in response to circumstances. 

There are many reasons why you need a certified labor relations professional. Companies that don't have a Labor Relations Specialist or don't have access to consultants, attorneys, or persuaders are leaving themselves vulnerable to unionization or continued union presence. If a union company, the consultant or specialist can minimize occurrences of Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs). If not a union company, the consultant or specialist plays a key role in helping management stay informed and is most likely to detect early union organizing signs.

Staying Out of Hot Water

To best understand the importance of a Labor Relations Specialist, consider the NLRB case of the Zeigler dealerships vs. Local Lodge 701, International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, AFL–CIO. (Case 13–CA–225984.)  

Brief Background

Zeigler Lincolnwood acquired Grossinger Auto Group. Grossinger's automotive technicians were members of Local Lodge 701. Lincolnwood didn't adopt the collective-bargaining agreement but made the mistake of not setting initial terms of employment for the union workers. The union contract became the status quo. 

Lincolnwood then met with the union to negotiate a new collective-bargaining contract. The negotiations reached an impasse, and Zeigler Lincolnwood's management said it wouldn't negotiate any longer. The final offer made to the union, which the employer eventually implemented without the union, eliminated a base-pay guarantee, and replaced the union health insurance with a more costly company health insurance. 

The Violations

It was alleged that a Zeigler dealership violated Section 8(a)(3) and (1) of the NLRA by constructively discharging two automotive technicians Mark Galuski and Carlos Martinez. The two resigned after their employer, by word and deed, conveyed that it was repudiating the union while unlawfully making changes to the technicians' wages and healthcare benefits. The judge found the employer constructively discharged the employees by confronting them with a "Hobson's choice" between abandoning their Section 7 rights and resigning. 

The company was ordered to pay the employees back pay plus interest and interim employment expenses plus interest and pay the union welfare and pension funds the company failed to make. These expenses were in addition to the attorney expenses incurred. 

This case involves several labor law violations. One of the major issues is that the employer appeared to threaten employees by making numerous unlawful statements and taking unlawful actions.

  • Employees were told that the contract would be implemented anyway if the union does not agree to the company's contract proposal. 
  • Employees were told that management would no longer talk to the union if they went on strike and would replace them. 
  • The company changed the pay period and work schedules.
  • Vacation requests were not approved according to the union contract's requirement; the approval process considers seniority. 
  • The employer had offered enhanced benefits if the employees would stay union-free. 
  • The employer installed surveillance cameras and tried to prohibit the union's access to the dealership. 
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Negative Impact on Company Culture

There were more violations, but every one of them could have been avoided if a Labor Relations Specialist had been consulted before unlawful statements were made and actions are taken and if leaders were well-trained on what they can and cannot say and do concerning unions. It's challenging to restore employee trust in situations like the one just described. The harm done to the company's culture and ability to engage employees will last a long time.

Consultation Before Action

Your managers can easily end up spending valuable time dealing with the National Labor Relations Board to answer charges of Unfair Labor Practices, responding to high rates of employee grievances, and trying to restore employee trust in management. Leadership training, effective communication with employees, and a deep understanding of unions within the context of labor laws are key strategies for staying out of legal trouble, creating a positive organizational culture, and engaging employees.

At IRI Consultants, our team of experts offers valuable and effective union-focused resources, as well as labor relations consulting services to help you successfully maintain direct relationship with your teams. Our custom tools for leadership development include online labor relations training for your supervisors, as well as high-quality leadership training in employee communication and engagement. It's much less expensive to invest in the unique resources that your organization needs, than to cover the cost of unionization. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions 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.

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