Labor relations refer to the relationship between corporate management and the unionized workforce. Administering the best practices along with the current developments in labor relations is contingent on labor management relations. In addition, the legal framework for collective bargaining and negotiations need to be examined. Knowledge of the history of the relationship between labor unions and management is fundamental in effective labor relations management today.
What is a labor union? A labor union is a group of employees, who are organized by the specific job that they do. They come together to form units that bargain with their employer regarding working issues and conditions. Union workers are referred to as “blue-collar workers” because the majority of people who hold that job specification are also union members. The majority of union members work in the public sector. These are jobs where the funding source can be national, state, or local. These types of jobs include: postal service jobs, teachers and police officers.
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Jobs in the private sector have no involvement with the government and are run by private citizens or groups. These types of jobs could be found in: restaurants, retail, or corporations. There are many more union members in the public sector than the private sector. Just under half of all employees in the federal, state, and local government are union members. Public school teachers, police, and firefighters hold the highest number of union workers in the local government. The second largest groups on the list of union members are protective service workers in private industry.
In the private sector, union members make up about a quarter of the size of the public sector, in transportation and utility positions. Other major private industries with above-average union membership percentages are construction and manufacturing, where in each case thirteen percent of the employees are in unions (Sloane & Witney, 2011). All union members have legal workplace rights that must be respected by their employers. Some rights are provided by federal or state statutes, hile others are inherent in specific union-employer agreements. If a union member feels that his rights have been infringed, in addition to taking legal action, charges can also be filed against employers through the National Labor Relations Board for violation of collective bargaining agreements. The NLRB is responsible for the prevention and resolving of unfair labor practices under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). They also guarantee the rights of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.
Another feature that union members have that non-union members don’t is a grievance procedure. This is an official complaint from the union member when they believe their contractual rights have been violated. The steps of the grievance procedure are outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. Collective bargaining is the process whereby unions and management negotiate and administer labor agreements (Sloane & Witney, 2011). Labor union officials enjoy many special powers and immunities that were created by legislatures and the courts.
Union officials claim to rely on the support of members of a political organization of workers who are exclusive of their leadership. In “Special Privileges”, (2010), the following list of special privileges reveals the rights union members have in their favor:
- Privilege #1: Exemption from anti-monopoly laws. The Clayton Act of 1914 exempts unions from anti-monopoly laws, enabling union officials to forcibly drive out independent or alternative employee bargaining groups.
- Privilege #2: Power to force employees to accept unwanted union representation. Monopoly bargaining, or “exclusive representation,” which is embedded in most of the country’s labor relations statutes, enables union officials to act as the exclusive bargaining agents of all employees at a unionized workplace, thereby depriving employees of the right to make their own employment contracts.
- Privilege #3: Power to collect forced union dues. Unlike other private organizations, unions can compel individuals to support them financially. In 27 states under the NLRA (those that have not passed Right to Work laws), all states under the RLA, on “exclusive federal enclaves,” and in many states under public sector labor relations acts, employees may be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, even if they reject union affiliation.
- Privilege #4:Unlimited, undisclosed electioneering. The Federal Election Campaign Act exempts unions from its limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, as well as some of its reporting requirements. Union bigwigs can spend unlimited amounts on communications to members and their families in support of, or opposition to, candidates for federal office, and they need not report these expenditures if they successfully claim that union publications are primarily devoted to other subjects.
- Privilege #5:Ability to strong-arm employers into negotiations. Unlike all other parties in the economic marketplace, union officials can compel employers to bargain with them. The NLRA, FLRA, and RLA make it illegal for employers to resist a union’s collective bargaining efforts and difficult for them to counter aggressive and deceptive campaigns waged by union organizers.
- Privilege #6:Right to trespass on an employer’s private property. The Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 (and state anti-injunction acts) give union activists immunity from injunctions against trespass on an employer’s property.
- Privilege #7:Ability of strikers to keep jobs despite refusing to work. Unlike other employees, unionized employees in the private sector have the right to strike; that is, to refuse to work while keeping their job.
In some cases, it is illegal for employers to hire replacement workers, even to avert bankruptcy. As you can see, the privileges of the union may seem unfair to non-union members. This can create a lot of mixed emotions and tension in the workplace. Although the rate of unionization has declined, its effects on the workplace are still existent. When you are non-union, it’s understandable to be complacent about union issues. Non-union employers must be aware of a number of other policy and practices that can lead to allegations of unfair-labor practices against them.
To uphold a fair work environment, management looks to form new relationships between both non-union and union members. In order to prepare for issues that may occur between both parties, it is the company’s responsibility to be fully informed and aware of union laws and precedents. The focus of the traditional law of unions makes up the major part of the labor law. It is based on workers collectively and their rights as a group. It is different from employment law which focuses more on issues relating to the rights of individual employees.
The body of law of which labor law is comprised is significant for the importance of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA is codified at 29 U. S. C. §§ 151-169 and purports to serve the national interest of the United States regarding labor relations within the country (Cornell, n. d. ). When periods of widespread strikes occur, uneasy relations can very quickly and severely have an adverse effect on the entire country. A clear policy regarding labor and management encourages the best interests of the employer, which is to maintain full trade and industry production.
It is essential to maintain peace in the workplace not just between employees, but employers as well. The NLRA attempts to limit industrial conflict among employers, employees, and labor organizations since the friction could affect full production which can then result in a series of even bigger problems. Unfair labor practices Union or not, when someone is treated unfairly at work, it can destroy morale. Sometimes the unfair treatment is done accidentally, but most of the time, the unfair treatment is a very deliberate act on the part of the management.
In some cases, the unfair treatment can actually be illegal. What is always true is that unfair treatment at work makes more problems than it solves, breeds animosity and distrust among employees, and creates an extremely uncomfortable work environment (Thorpe, 2008). These practices are referred to as unfair labor practices and have been singled out for their potential to harm the general welfare of employees. Through the NLRA, employees are guaranteed the right to organize and to bargain collectively with their employers through representatives of their own choosing.
If they choose not to exercise these rights, they are also guaranteed the right to refrain from them. The NLRA establishes a procedure by which employees can exercise their choice whether or not to join a union in a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. When and at whose discretion a secret-ballot election may be exercised as opposed to other election procedures is currently a matter of contention between employers and labor groups (Cornell, n. d. ). For those who belong to a union, they have some protection against unfair treatment at work.
Union members have the right to work free of the pressures of unfair labor practices, as defined by the NLRA. Members also have the right to file claims regarding unfair labor practices with the NLRB. According to union-organizing. com, examples of unfair labor practices include: coercion to join or refrain from joining a union; threats to close facilities in retaliation for union activities; bribes directed at employees for any reason; personal inquiries concerning union sympathies; refusal to consider grievances (Ingram, 1999).
Unions and the United States Labor movement have continued their historic decline in terms of membership and density, in today’s economy. Unions have emerged from a period of economic growth and prosperity to becoming smaller and weaker. Having missed an incredible opportunity to grow in a time of prosperity, labor must now figure out how to build numbers and strength in face of economic uncertainty, a Republican President, war, budget deficits, public service cuts and the continued exporting of union manufacturing jobs (Lerners, 2002).
The unions of the United States have huge resources: millions of members, billions of dollars in dues, and hundreds of billions in pension capital, as well as political power and the leverage of collective bargaining. These resources offer the potential and the opportunity to organize millions of workers and rebuild the labor movement. The AFL-CIO has documented that the US economy is growing away from the labor movement, growing fastest where unions are weakest, where only one out of ten new jobs is union. Private sector unions are losing density in the traditional unionized sectors of the economy (Lerners, 2002).
The weakness of labor unions is becoming increasingly evident in the low statistics in most sectors. Supporters of union workers can see in those same numbers the potential for huge growth, with millions of non-union workers coming into those sectors. In general, it is legal for employers to try to persuade employees not to unionize. However, it is illegal for a company to attempt to prevent employees from unionizing by promises of violence, threats or other intimidating actions. It is also illegal for unions to use lies or threats of violence to intimidate employees into joining a union (Silverman, n. . ). Opponents of unions believe that labor unions are bad for business. They feel that labor unions have too much power for their size. They also feel that labor unions use this power as blackmail against companies, by causing labor monopolies. Some feel that they ask too much of companies, causing either the company to shut down, or to supply more money for their employees. Union members are generally Democratic, and are certain that Republicans believe that labor unions lead to recession because they cause wages to go up, and that causes prices to go up, which leads to lower production.
For many business managers and owners who are striving to keep their firms strong in a competitive marketplace, the thought of a labor union entering the workplace and organizing the employees can be a source of headache (Hall, 1999). Although employers cannot prevent unions, they can take steps to make unionization less attractive to their non-union employees. According to some human resource professionals, the best defense against union organizing may be a good offense (Lerners, 2012).
This can be obtained in a non-aggressive manner such as managers having an “open-door” policy with their subordinates and answering any questions and concerns they may have. Human resources play a big role also, since they handle the employee benefits and relations. Keeping a good working relationship will promote effective communication, thus reducing the risk of unhappy employees who may seek to unionize.
Why Do Employees Join Unions
- Failed to keep up with job rate and benefit package.
- Rule by fear.
- Win/Lose Philosophy of labor relations.
- Little, if any, personal recognition.
- Lack of fair and firm discipline.
- No input into any decision-making.
- No career advancement available.
- Little job security.
- No complaint procedure, no support by employees for complaint procedure.
- Failure to have personnel policies and benefits in writing.
Lack of recognition for length of service. In the work place, union members have the benefit of negotiating with their employer as a group. This basic right gives them much more power than if they were to negotiate individually, as non-union employees do.
On average, union employees make 27 percent more than non-union workers and ninety-two percent of union workers have job-related health coverage versus 68 percent for non-union workers (Silverman, n. d. ). Union workers also have a great advantage over non-union workers in securing their pensions. Through their collective bargaining agreements and the grievance and arbitration processes, unions help to protect their employees from unjust dismissal. As a result, most union employees cannot be fired without “just cause,” unlike many non-union employees who can be fired at any time and for almost any reason.
The use of the term "union steward" is not universal. It is, however, the most common designation given to a representative of the union whose role is to represent employees in a certain work area (Sloane & Witney, 2011). Stewards or union representatives are selected by the union. Some unions elect their stewards while others are appointed by the union officers. No matter how they are selected, the union notifies the company of the employees who are stewards for specific work areas.
Due to the size or location of the departments, they may have several stewards while other departments may have one steward who is responsible for several departments. Whatever the case, the union internally determines this and notifies accordingly. The supervisor does not have a role in the selection of the steward. Stewards are persons who are responsible to the union for performing many functions. The steward represents employees in the bargaining unit and can also recruits new members, handle communications between the union and management, and interpret the contract to employees. Most importantly, they represent the union.
Supervisors should recognize and respect the steward's role. If a supervisor thinks that a steward is not successfully doing his or her job as a steward, it is not the responsibility of the supervisor to give any advice or make recommendations. The supervisor must remember that the steward is a company employee. Essentially, the steward is chosen because he or she is the most competent to represent the employees. However, it is important, that the supervisor accept the steward in good faith. It is the company’s obligation to give stewards the sincere and careful consideration to which they and the employees they represent are entitled.
It is crucial that the supervisor and the steward develop a good working relationship. If both individuals can recognize their respective roles, they can form an understanding. In other words, the steward can be a friend or an enemy. As in any working relationship, time and experience will define it. A supervisor who treats a steward fairly will most likely receive fair treatment and respect from the steward. Another powerful union tool is the strike. A strike is when a group of workers stops working in protest to labor conditions or as a bargaining tool during negotiations between labor and management.
This may not always be the most effective plan of action, but the law entitles union members the right to strike when they feel that it is necessary. Employers fear the possibility of a strike since production stops while the strike is in effect. Strikes can last anywhere from hours to weeks and the longer they continue, the more disastrous they can become for the company. While labor unions are not as prominent today as they were in the past, they still play a vital role in protecting and representing America’s workforce.
As the supervisor in a union environment, the most critical relationship in a working environment is the one between employees and their immediate supervisor. To the employee, the immediate supervisor becomes the "face" of that jurisdiction's management (Karon, 2010). The responsibilities that management represents are critical to the successful supervisory interface with employees. In a union environment, a third party (the bargaining unit) would be put into this relationship. The membership of a workforce that is represented by a union are called a bargaining unit.
Employees can choose to join the union or refrain from joining; nevertheless, all are subject to the working conditions or agreement agreed to by the jurisdiction and the union (Karon, 2010). Although negotiations of these agreements can take a while to establish, the critical aspect of the process is in the administration of that contract. The supervisor is the key link in a relationship between labor and management. Each supervisor has a responsibility to ensure that the labor agreement is enforced. As a result, many supervisors will be involved in the mandated grievance process.
Because supervisors generally know more about the employee than top management does, there are additional burdens placed on these supervisors. To the average employee, the supervisor is management. Due to this, a supervisor must understand his or her role and responsibilities in the organization that he or she represents. Most important is the supervisor's ability to get along with employees. While close personal involvement with employees is frowned upon, the supervisor should be friendly and concerned about the welfare of those that he or she supervises at work.
When a person is appointed to a supervisory position, they must realize the fine line in relationships between themselves and their employees. Providing an environment where all employees are comfortable, while remaining pro-active with full awareness of policies that apply to either union or non-union members, or both. By remaining approachable and understanding, employees will be more open to discussing concerns, thus reducing the urge to join the union for increased benefits. The introduction of the labor agreement adds a new dimension to the multi-faceted role of the supervisor.
The institution of a grievance procedure in addition to the presentation of the union representative and steward or union official, makes it even more critical for supervisors to understand that to accept the responsibility of a supervisory position means supporting and advocating management's position (Karon, 2010). The supervisor who cannot support supervisory and management in a policy does a disservice to everyone at the company. For this reason, supervisory training should be heightened to guarantee that they respond properly whenever allegations of contract violations have occurred.
Enforcing company policies as well as obeying the collective bargaining agreement does not take the supervisor’s right to their own opinions away. In fact, it is the responsibility of the supervisor to pass their opinions on to other levels of management and communicate results to other employees. Since the supervisor has the most contact with the employees, it is usually the supervisor who becomes the “middleman” when disputes arise. For this reason, good communication skills and understanding the importance of the supervisor's role in your organization is essential to the success of every supervisor.
Employers that have become somewhat complacent with respect to union organizing must become more active in reviewing their human resource policies and practices. Some may be surprised to find out their companies are unionized, or have union members affiliated. Often times, organizations have standard accustomed rules that their members follow. These may have been established “through the grapevine” or accepted as common knowledge. To ensure compliance with the work rules, manuals and handbooks should be reviewed regularly to evaluate whether they do or do not violate the NLRA.
Furthermore, there are many resources within the administration of a company that can be employed. These include human resource programs, policies, and procedures that are infrequently utilized, as well as complaint procedures and establishing an open-door policy. Policies that require employees to first bring complaints to their immediate supervisors should also be thoroughly reviewed to verify that both union and non-union issues are handled properly. Being a supervisor is not an easy task.
The supervisor is entrusted with accomplishing the work of his or her unit through the efforts of their employees within that unit. Keeping the employees informed of what their jobs are and how they are to accomplish their tasks are just a small part of the supervisor's overall responsibilities. Administering standards and expectations, developing methods to motivate and increase productivity, and ensuring compliance to all policies through open communication with all employees will promote effective labor relations within the company.
- Cabot, S. (1997). “How to avoid a union” Retrieved from: https://www. nlrb. gov/national-labor-relations-act
- Hall, S. (1999). How to stop union organizing. Retrieved from: http://www. ehow. com/how_7986074_stop-union-organizing. html
- Ingrim, D. (1999). “Union members’ rights”. Retrieved from: http://money. howstuffworks. com/labor-union5. htm
- Karon, J. (2010). “Discipline and Grievance”. Retrieved from: http://www. d. umn. edu/umdhr/Policies/grievance. html
- Lerners, S. (2002). Labor Notes “Three steps to reorganizing and rebuilding the labor movement”. Retrieved from: http://labornotes. org/node/575
- “Big Labor’s Special Privileges” (n. d. ). Retrieved from: http://www. nrtw. org/d/big_labor_special_privileges. htm
- Sloan, A. & Witney, F. (2011). Labor Relations, 13th Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Learning
- Solutions. Thorpe, J. (2008). Employment Law: Unfair treatment at work. Retrieved from: http://www. helium. com/items/801741-employment-law-unfair-treatment-at-work
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