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.
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