Is it easier or harder than a non-union environment?

There is an often-repeated myth that it is easier to manage people in a unionized environment than in a non-union setting. This is due to the notion that a collective agreement eliminates or drastically reduces work disputes because rules, regulations and responsibilities will be clearly stated in the agreement.

One might then conclude that with a collective agreement that managing will have been simplified.  In fact, however, managing in a union environment is more demanding.  A manager’s job is not merely to adhere to the letter of the agreement but also to actively administer, apply and at times, interpret the directives of the collective agreement in the best manner in any given circumstance. In addition, a Manager’s job is to understand what actions management can take that are not spelled out in the collective agreement.

One of the first challenges when managing in a union environment is that people not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business usually negotiate the collective agreement!

On the management side a spokesperson usually from the corporate offices or from outside the company is often the chief negotiator, while the union will provide a staff member who is not an employee of the company. This is one of many reasons why the front-line management group does not take ownership for the collective agreement and arguably does not understand the collective agreement well. In fact as a result of lack of involvement in the bargaining process they tend to abdicate responsibility for it and rely on others to interpret the collective agreement and manage the relationship between the company and the union.

What people forget, is that the most important relationship …between the supervisor and employee remains intact. It is important for the supervisor to understand the “contractual” and legal aspects of that relationship in order to effectively manage the workforce. With a union in place, the relationship in a legal sense has changed. However, in a practical sense it remains the same – collectively the supervisors and employees have to get the work done safely and well.

It is absolutely essential for all of management to understand that the collective agreement is a contract and as such is owned every bit as much by the company as it is by the union. The contract not only imposes certain obligations on management, but it also helps establish what rights management has in addition to and outside of the collective agreement.  This is what is called –  management rights. Unfortunately, the view is too often that the collective agreement limits management rights and the union has the greater say in how things are run. This is simply part of the myth.

So to answer the question, “ is managing in a union environment easier or harder?

The answer is it is more demanding and definitely different than managing in a non union environment.  To make it easier the first step is for all of management to be taught some of the differences and how to manage in a unionized environment and how to read and understand your collective agreement.