Executive Officer Leadership: Cultivating Effective Union-Management Relationships

In almost all organizations today, in both the public and private sector, managers are looking to deliver better results and greater productivity. And within these same organizations, the union is sometimes seen as a barrier to management effectively achieving these goals.

From the union’s point of view, management sees the collective bargaining agreement as an impediment to achieving results, leading to frequent violations of the collective bargaining agreement.

This dynamic leads to ongoing conflict between management and union, further draining the organization’s energy and resources, eroding the very productivity and results the organization is seeking to achieve. Both management and the union need to revisit how the collective-bargaining agreement is used—and could be used more effectively—within the organization.

Does this sound like what’s happening in your fire-rescue organization? Has this happened in the past?

To meet the challenges of the future, the onus lies on both management and the union to help create a working environment where every member of the organization contributes to the organization’s success.

Upon researching many union-management articles and books, I’ve found common mistakes and challenges that management and unions make regarding collective-bargaining agreements. These mistakes and challenges create the very issues both are trying to avoid.

Let’s first discuss common management mistakes and ways to correct them.

Lack of understanding about the collective-bargaining agreement – The greatest building block for establishing credibility in the workplace for a manager is clear knowledge and familiarity with the collective-bargaining agreement. Without this knowledge, management lacks credibility with their staff, impairing their ability to lead and drive change with their workforce.

Lack of interpersonal skills when applying the collective-bargaining agreement – Even when managers know and understand the basics of the agreement, they sometimes use it as a form of power to force their employees into compliance rather than as a jointly agreed-upon framework everyone must operate within.

Management-union relationships don’t run effectively through the use of power; they function productively when a climate of respect and engagement exists. It’s up to management to take the lead in creating this climate.

Ineffective communication with staff – While many meetings may be held and a great number of emails may fly back and forth, management frequently doesn’t communicate effectively with staff. The essence of good communication is answering the question, “Why?”

Why is this initiative taking place? Why are we doing this? Why is this important?

Much research shows that without everyone clearly knowing what and understanding why decisions are made or actions are taken, little engagement or commitment will arise.

Effective communication requires management to have a communication strategy, one that prioritizes information and communicates it clearly and repeatedly in a range of forums, from newsletters and labor-management meetings to informational bulletins or memorandums. When “why” is answered clearly and unambiguously, engagement and commitment aren’t far behind.

Now let’s move on to common union mistakes and the ways to correct them.

Creating or allowing a reactive environment – Many times, unions feel shut out by management and react by simply resisting anything that isn’t crystal clear to them. Instead of resisting management decisions, unions should take the lead in asking, “Why?”

That is, unions should hold management accountable to having clear, understandable reasons and rationale for decision-making.

Furthermore, unions must demonstrate a willingness to listen and take management’s goals for the organization seriously. By taking a proactive stand rather than a reactive one, the union assumes a leadership role in helping to create a positive work environment for all fire-rescue personnel.

Creating or allowing an adversarial environment – In addition to resisting management decisions when feeling shut out, unions may become flat-out adversarial on principle, refusing to support even positive changes the organization is implementing. These adversarial feelings often stem from a long history of conflict.

Regardless of their root cause, a defensive stance makes it even easier for management to ignore or marginalize the union, leading to even greater levels of resistance. Once a strongly adversarial mindset takes hold, many opportunities to improve the organization disappear.

Once again, unions should hold management accountable by requiring both a clear understanding of management decisions and respect for the collective-bargaining agreement. In turn, management will likely be encouraged to engage with rather than marginalize the union.

Seeing discipline as purely punitive – Discipline when properly executed is corrective in nature; discipline that is properly and fairly applied is necessary in the workplace. Unions that approach all discipline as unnecessary or unfair foster the wrong mindset.

Unions have a clear duty to fairly represent their members and must hold management accountable for fair and corrective use of discipline. This accountability doesn’t mean, however, that all discipline must be resisted and fought.

By enforcing an approach that balances fair representation with a reasonable and corrective use of discipline, both parties will promote a culture of high performance and fair treatment in the workplace.

Both unions and management have a duty to create productive, respectful and engaging workplaces. The collective-bargaining agreement is one of the main tools both parties must use effectively to create this organizational culture.

Another tool is communication between unions and management to ensure that both know what’s going on and can ask each other the question “why” and work on getting answers.

If management and unions still can’t get along, there is help available.

In the 1990s, the IAFC and the IAFF created the Labor-Management Initiative, now called the Labor-Management Alliance (LMA), in which a team will come to your department and teach management and union representatives how to improve labor-management relationships and increase the level of trust between the two. Labor and management need to find a balance to ensure employees are taken care of and the organization thrives now and into the future.


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