New mindset and tools for middle managers upon the establishment of a union

The mindset of middle managers needs to change upon the establishment of a union. As the union flexes its muscles and establishes its power base, middle management must rethink its role domain and retool. This post related to changes which need to occur in the mindset of middle management.

  • Middle management needs to internalize that managing in a unionized shop is a new ball game. Part of the ball game is that senior management may be broadcasting that “nothing has changed”. Senior management is probably sending out the message: “you keep doing your job and we (whoever that is, probably Legal) will take care of the union”. However, this message is problematic as it illustrates the one of the very reasons why the union was established, eg, arrogance.
  • Over time, most unions become a partner in strategic and operational decision making. The more that management tries to make decisions “above their heads” of the union, the more militant the unions will become. Middle managers need to ensure that they engage their own senior management to avoid being used as an ineffective and damaging way to bypass legitimate union interests.
  • Middle management needs to understand the dynamic of union activity, understand the agendas of the union, build trust and proactively work with the union.  There is no “working around” the union via dealing with the so called “more sane” employees.
  • The employees will always defer to the union, because the union will take better care of them than management. So never bad mouth the union.
  • Partner with the union on a personal level and strategically. Senior managers come and go. The union is “built to last”. So it’s better learn about the new partner-for-life than working to neutralize their power.
  • It takes up to two years for a union leadership to exercise their muscles. But they do get strong and cannot be “managed” by an external legal firm. So learn to respect their interests early on in the game.

 

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Strategy Shift for HR after the establishment of a union

The long struggle against unionization is generally led by internal and external lawyers, board representatives, the CEO, HR and in some cases by a PR firm.

In my country, the last two years have shown that although the struggle against unionization fails, every management team tends to fight the war to prevent it from happening.

After the war against unionization is over and the union is established, the role of HR undergoes a major strategic shift. This post will spell out the suggested strategy shift for Human Resources professionals after unionization is a fact of life.

1) First we need to understand how the battle against unionization is waged.

During the battle against the establishment of a Union, management claims that there are “good guys” and “bad guys”, employees who care about the company and those who want to destroy the company, the noisy minority who wants a union and the silent majority who supposedly does not want a union.

When a union is established, the union becomes the sole voice of labour. So, the first shift in strategy is that HR must work thru the union and only the union, after its establishment. The good guys and all the silent majority become irrelevant. If HR maintains a parallel dialogues with the Union and the staff, the way that the Union operates will be much more militant and brutal.

2) Second, we need to look at the division of labour between Legal and HR after a union has been established.

The struggle against unions is very lucrative business for the legal profession. Even “in house legal” gains  lots of power in the struggle against the establishment of a union. During the struggle against the establishment of the Union, lawyers generally call the shots. At times, the firms’ lawyers even talk to the press directly! After a union is established, the legal folks don’t really want to move out of the space they occupied in their struggle against the union.

Yet, lawyers cannot manage industrial relations after the establishment of a union, the second shift of strategy is repositioning “legal” in a more minor position, and re-positioning HR to become the owner of the industrial relations portfolio. This is a difficult shift in strategy, because getting control of industrial relations means a battle with the internal and external legal folks. In many cases, the CEO will also want to manage the industrial relations portfolio. (It takes up to 2 years before a CEO learns how stupid this is).

3) The third strategic shift is the change of narrative and behaviour.  After a union is established, the narrative within management and the narrative with the union needs to change.

During the struggle against unionization, management rhetoric becomes heated and the same empty slogans are repeated again and again. “The company will be ruined by a union”. “We cannot compete if we are unionized” etc. ad nauseam.

After the establishment of a union, many words said during the struggle need to be “taken back” and narratives need to be rewritten.


The monumental task of repositioning HR after the establishment of a Union are probably the most interesting task an HR manager or OD consultant can take on. Stakes are high, yet there is a protocol for success. So my suggestion is follow the protocol and do not improvise.

Follow me @AllonShevat

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The treachery of HR business partnership

In an attempt to remain relevant in an economic environment which puts less weight on the value of the human resource, HR migrated to a mode of so called “business partnership”, and the idea itself and its implementation has turned into a fatal mistake.

The meaning of this business partnership has been to subjugate “representation” of the human resource in decision making in exchange for a “higher and more elevated” role of ensuring that the management of the human resource is “aligned” with the needs of the business.

The HR “business partnership” absolved HR from “protecting”  and lobbying for the human resource, because the HR business partnership co-opted the HR function and defanged it. This so called partnership has robbed HR of the necessary credibility to do its role.

This HR business partnership reminds me of  a Chief Financial Officer who misleads the Board and Investors because he is the CEO’s business partner. Clearly, there are some CFO’s  who have gone down this road, having made a mockery of their profession. However this deception is not the espoused religion of the CFO. In the case of HR, business partnership has led to abandoning the people for the numbers. In parallel, many very skilled HR people were replaced by a generation of mindless technocrats whose expertise was sycophancy

As the  so-called HR business partnership became more real, the deception became more evident, as is witnessed by the growth of wow-wow-ism which focuses on making sure that things are fun. HR  communication became sloganeering, reminiscent of the old communist newspaper which praised the socialist reality and ignored the breadlines.

HR became a profession deeply mistrusted and hated by the workforce.

What has happened in this country in the past few years is no surprise. Massive unionization has come to haunt the HR business partners. These powerful unions have sprung up overnight in finance, mobile communications, high tech, insurance and even in large taxi companies.

The new unions have pounced on the emptiness and perceived treachery  of the “HR business partnership”, and have provided an alternative, seen by workforce as far more reliable.

This change has pushed HR into a far worse position than they have ever been, ie-HR becomes the isolated so-called business partner of the CEO and the Union becomes the voice of the employees.

CEO’s need people next to them who talk numbers, talk sales, talk marketing and talk people. Not HR business partnership. And if HR does not get it, the unions do.

I always tell my clients that it is better to deal with an empowered HR manager who represents the people lobby, than a union steward. Few have listened; many are learning the hard way.

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