Employer-Unions’ Strategic and Systems Approach to Human Resources

Employer-Unions’ Strategic and Systems Approach to Human Resources

Unions, like other organizations, operate in an environment of change. To be effective, and in some cases to even survive, labor organizations need to make wise strategic choices and then effectively implement the strategies chosen. And they must do this simultaneously in a number of different areas, including organizing, collective bargaining, contract administration, and political action.

Central to successful decision-making and policy implementation in all of the above endeavors are the employees of the union. While the term employer-union might sound contradictory to some, it has great meaning to thousands of people who are on the payrolls of labor organizations.

Research shows that “a steady increase in unions’ adoption of more formal personnel policies, budget practices, strategic planning processes, and efforts to evaluate planned activities over the 20-year period studied. They also indicate that unions increasingly recruit individuals meeting collegetechnical, and professional qualifications. Taken together, the results suggest a recognition on the part of many unions that adapting their internal administrative practices to the new realities they face is a fundamental and a necessary part of any effort at organizational renewal.” SeeAdvances in Industrial and Labor Relations, Chapter 7, Adapting Union Administrative Practices to New Realities, Paul Whitehead, Paul F. Clark, Lois S. Gray (2017)

What is Labor Union Theory of Management?

Generally, particularly in unionized workplaces, command-and-control style of management is highly problematic. So, what is the best alliterative?

It is essential for labor unions to model best management practices. “If managing is working with and through people to get things done, then unionists need to become good managers. But ask nearly anyone in the labor movement how well unions manage staff and you will probably get mostly negative answers — once they stop coughing nervously.” Ken A. Margolies (2012, August). Managing Union Management. Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Human Resources Strategy for Labor Unions

If you are a unionist and wondering about the need for strategic human resources professionals in managing your labor union then you have missed the advancement of human resources from mundane administrative functions to strategic partnership within the past twenty years, particularly in the field of labor union management. See, Ken A. Margolies (2011)Human Resource Strategy for Labor Unions: Oxymoron, Chimera or Contributor to Revival, Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. (“In many unions the notion that they need an HR strategy or even that there is such a thing is unknown or shunned. However, some unions are seeking new ways to manage staff as they develop strategies to respond to the crisis in the labor movement.“) Mr. Margolies stresses that “unions are in great need of more effective HR strategies with a systems approach.” Facing existential crisis, labor unions can’t continue management as usual. They need to improve “in the area of staff accountability and development; union officials generally resist embracing their management responsibilitiestraining for managers within unions is rare; and internal union politics play a significant complicating role in all aspects of HR within unions.” Ken A. Margolies (2011).

How Can Unions Develop and Implement Such HR Strategies?

Labor Unions need to:

  1. “find better ways to develop highly skilled staff” 
  2. “set performance expectations”
  3. “hold staff accountable” 

Ken A. Margolies, Human Resource Strategy for Labor Unions: Oxymoron, Chimera or Contributor to Revivalpage 7. (2011)(Those unions most focused on staff motivation, development and accountability and strategic planning are most likely to be growing and adapting to environmental changes. Those unions which are largely engaged in legal compliance/personnel functions and internal politics are likely to find it increasingly difficult to adapt to those same changes in the environment.)

Developing Highly Skilled Staff

Many labor unions suffer from inept staff mostly because labor union experience and loyalty to unionism have become the superseding factors in recruitment and staffing labor unions. See,  Ken A. Margolies, Human Resource Strategy for Labor Unions: Oxymoron, Chimera or Contributor to Revival, page 11. (2011)(“In the area of recruitment and selection, it is common that unions primarily look for dedication to the cause of unionism and previous experience to the exclusion of many other factors. Factors such as emotional intelligenceexperience outside the labor movementwhether the candidate is a good fit for the team and job and the ability to grow and develop into more responsible jobs with the union often are less valued.”) Thus, while loyalty to unionism and union experience are important factors to be considered in recruitment and staffing labor union organizations, equal attention should be given to diversifying staff by employing individuals from “outside the labor movement.” A staff with diverse backgrounds can actually strengthen organizations.

Performance Management and Accountability Within Unions

Performance management and accountability hardly exist in many unions and where it is practiced it is often inconsistent and ineffective. “The evaluation systems and accountability systems are not very strong in unions and accountability is the part of supervising that union people have the most problem with. Unions have a high tolerance for people who are not doing what they are supposed to. If supervisors and managers generally are reluctant to give corrective feedback it is particularly true of managers within unions who consider being compared to a boss as a cutting insult. Many union supervisors and managers have such a high level of discomfort with being in the “boss” role that it is not surprising that all too often union staff who are widely seen as deficient never get held accountable.” See,  Ken A. MargoliesHuman Resource Strategy for Labor Unions: Oxymoron, Chimera or Contributor to Revival, page 25-26. (2011)

Considering the highly political nature of labor unions, conducting annual performance evaluations in labor unions tend to be ineffective. Instead of avoiding or postponing performance evaluations to annual events, managers should create a culture of feedback where they give and receive constructive feedback on an ongoing basis. “The atmosphere within many unions is mostly unfriendly to giving or receiving feedback due to the political nature of unions;” hence, achieving a culture of feedback could be trying but not insurmountable.

Clearly, for unions to have successful HR strategies for staff development and accountability, they need to practice better alternatives that have been the norm. With the enormous pressures facing the labor movement, unions are quickly coming to the conclusion that they cannot continue to maintain staff who are not performing. As a result, there is a great deal of interest in finding better ways to keep staff accountable. In many cases, these efforts are primitive and center on simply revising performance appraisal forms and practices. However, a growing number of unions are taking a more comprehensive and progressive approach to increasing staff accountability.

Ken A. Margolies, Page 32, (2011).