Oakbridges - Labour Relations Strategists

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Is it Harder to Manage in a Union Environment or in a Non-Union Environment?

Thu, 09/28/2017 - 18:29 -- Sue.Mackintosh

Is it Harder to Manage in a Union Environment or in 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 and at times apply and interpret the directives of the collective agreement in the best and just manner for 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 reasons managers and supervisors in a union environment have challenges with their collective agreement is because people not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business usually negotiate the collective agreement! The mangement spokesperson is usually from the corporate office or from outside the company, and the union too will often use staff member who is not an employee of the company as their chief negotiator. This lack of involvement is one of reasons why the front line management group does not take ownership for the collective agreement and arguably does not understand the collective agreement well.  This lack of involvement in the bargaining process makes managing harder and in fact frontline manager tend to abdicate responsibility for the administration of the collective agreement and rely on others to interpret and enforce the rules.

What higher management often forgets, is that the most important relationship...between the supervisor and employee... remains the same in both union and non union environments.  Yes it is important for the supervisor to understand the “contractual” and legal aspects of that relationship in order to effectively manage the workforce and with a union in place.  So 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.

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 is to be taught some of the differences when managing in a unionized environment and how to read and understand their collective agreement.

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