Supplanting the Role of Unions

In order to maintain a productive non-union workforce, manufacturers need to supplant the role of unions. Unfortunately, there are not many managers trained to do so. That lack of training can be a detriment to a company's success.

In the past, the foremost role for unions was dealing with employee grievances/complaints. Where there is no union, management must create an "asking strategy" that comprises listening to needs, concerns, fears, and grievances/complaints of employees and be prepared to resolve them without discord. An "asking strategy" is an effective means for creating a policy that promotes employee inclusion.


It is essential that HR executives be expert in administering alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs ADR programs are generally welcomed by management and employees they are cost-effective and swiftly arrive at fair resolutions.

While there are many ADR programs, the three most common varieties are the following:

  • Arbitration, an adjudication process during which a third party hears both sides of a dispute; and weighing the evidence, renders a decision;
  • Mediation, involving a third party who facilitates open and ongoing communication that is designed to lead to a settlement that both sides will accept;
  • Peer review, an adjudication process that relies upon a selected panel of managers and employees, a majority of whom render a binding decision.

So that employees are aware of ADR process, management should structure the use of various types of communications, such as newsletters, brochures, e-mails, company announcements on bulletin boards, direct mail pieces in pay envelopes or mailed to homes.

ADR programs are important for defusing and resolving employee grievances/complaints before they can grow and have negative effects on morale and productivity.


When management successfully supplants the role of unions, it also undertakes to perform a traditional role of unions: asking and then listening to what employees say about their jobs, futures, companies and policies.

One of the best means of doing that is focus groups, which afford management important opportunities to obtain reliable information about workforce and attitudes.

A focus group, for example, might be formed so that management can impart new policy information about health care benefits, while learning about employee attitudes to the new policy. A focus group should be run by a person who has the interpersonal skills to ask the right questions and get specific information.

Focus groups examine issues in a flexible manner that is part of an overall strategic plan; they are an effective means for collecting valuable data.


Focus groups lead to team building. While the former are exploratory, teams are instruments for implementing strategic plans.

Teams serve to enhance communications and resolve conflicts, but are most effective for increasing productivity and enhancing employee morale. When it comes to meeting certain productivity criteria, for example, the entire team is mutually responsible for reaching those goals (TEAM is an acronym for "Together, everybody accomplishes more," which helps to dissolve adversarial relationships.)

When teams of workers are formed, they can be banded together to accomplish specific tasks, then reformed to accomplish other tasks. Management can reconstitute teams to solve different problems and to achieve higher goals of productivity.

To create effective teams, management should clearly determine what problems a team should solve. It is important that teams have a selection of the right kind of people to get a job done. The most effective teams are composed of idea people, detail people, and facilitators.

Once teams are established, it is important that they meet regularly, review their progress, keep records, and provide management with tracking tools. One individual should report to management.


As unions have shop stewards, non-unionized companies can have what is known as an Employee Advocate Representative (EAR). The EAR position is usually a trial assignment aimed at improving morale. The EAR is proactive, asking and listening, then imparting employee concerns to management. The EAR deals with workplace issues and the personal concerns of employees. The EAR position may or may not be salaried and is for a limited period of time.

The responsibilities of the EAR include providing input about employee issues and suggesting solutions at regular department meetings. In addition, the EAR may assist in promoting company communications. 

If management implements these activities, it will successfully supplant the role that unions had played in the past, and it will do so without the negative aspects of unionization.

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The UPS Strike

The two-week strike in August by the Teamsters union against UPS caused nervousness throughout much of the business community -- about the possibility of a new era of labor militancy.

While unionized workers represent only 15% of the US workforce -- down from 35% as recently as 1987 -- some analysts suggest that the UPS strike represented a turning point from which organized labor will begin a major resurgence.

For a clear and authoritative perspective on the new labor situation, Bottom Line/Business interviewed two of our experts -- management-employment lawyer Stephen J. Cabot and labor economist Audrey Freed man.

The UPS settlement is certainly the biggest that organized labor has had in many years. But the benefits will be short-lived.

Thanks to organized labor's very effective public relations effort, the strikers were able to obtain favorable attention from the media and general support from the public.

But the public's perception will change over time as controversy about Teamsters' president Ron. Carey heats up.

Questions about the legitimacy of Carey's election and campaign financing were obviously known to the union but were kept quiet until after the strike. In six months or so, people will again be talking about mob connections, etc.

As to the strike itself, the great union victory that was pronounced in the press was not great at all. Carey had promised he would never commit his union for more than a three-year contract, yet he gave UPS a five-year deal.

only an average of 3% a year -- a minimum figure in the current negotiating climate in which many companies arc willing to go to 3.5% or even 4% to get long-term contracts.

Key: UPS was never going to give in on the central issue of hiring increasing numbers of part-time workers -- and it didn't. Its industry is growing so fast that it can easily turn some workers into full-timers. It will still hire more part-timers and may even have a larger percentage of them in five years.

Even if there were no union, the company was destined to pay part -- market is very tight in today's strong economy, and UPS needs the kind of quality people who generally work longer hours than the typical part-timer.

Bottom line: Most companies use part-timers. Most labor con-tracts allow for the hiring of part-timers. And many people today are looking for decent part-time jobs. Nobody's putting a gun to anybody's head to work pan-time for UPS or any other firm.

My guess: If those part-timers were offered the chance to become full-time workers, as many as half-men and women -- would turn it down for a wide variety of reasons. It is a personal issue, not a legal issue or a humanitarian.

So-the union took a red herring and created a populist appeal.

Short term: I think that unions will get a short-term benefit out of the strike. I've seen it already in more active union organizing during August and early September, which is normally die slow season for labor activity.

So-I'm urging clients to be prepared. Expect unions to be more assertive and aggressive in both organizing and negotiations. Make sure you dot the is and cross the t's in union contracts...communicate effectively with employees...and treat employees as they deserve 10 be treated -- as valuable assets -- so they don't feel the need to join a union to get a better deal.


The biggest impact really has nothing to do with the union. Shippers will now be wary of dealing exclusively with UPS. That wariness creates opportunities for other delivery companies to begin to nibble at the edges of UPS's very large apple.

On the labor issues, this is always the time of year when a great bragging noise comes from the AFL-CIO.

Of course, the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney has a more aggressive mind-set than his predecessor, Lane Kirkland, and he's putting more money into revitalizing labor. But we've been hearing for years about organizing the farm industry, etc.

As for labor's recent success in organizing Las Vegas hotel workers, the union's trust funds -- along with the Mafia-have owned many of the major casinos in Las Vegas for a long time. That's like claiming great success for organizing AFL-CIO headquarters.

As for the issue of part-timers, UPS has about 100,000 of them, and when management agreed to convert 10,000 to full-time positions over five years, it was really not making much of a concession-assuming that UPS continues to grow at a healthy pace. What we're talking about really is UPS's ability to use and schedule its workers with total flexibility.

Part-time is almost a misnomer here. Essential to UPS's success is having the flexibility to have workers do different tasks at different times. UPS has preserved that flexibility.

The union was very effective at putting its own spin on the strike story. We all fell for the term '"pan-time employees," although quite a few of them work more than just part-time.

Important: In a tight labor market, such as the one we have currently, any company that is smart enough to devise a schedule that will attract students, retired people and those who have other jobs has an advantage.

Question: How much flexibility did UPS lose in the settlement? Answer: Not very much.

Concerning the long-term impact on the future of labor, most businesses can relax.

The AFL-CIO, under its forceful leader, John Sweeney, succeeded in signing up some government workers and small numbers in related areas where organizing has recently been somewhat successful, such as at public hospitals and HMOs.

But -- the loss of union members is extremely heavy in the private sector and has been for some time. So I think organized labor probably either will continue to stagnate or begin to decline.

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Labor Snafus

As a labor-relations attorney who has represented management in its multifaceted relationships with labor over the past 36 years. I have created numerous programs that help to prevent labor problems from arising while many people have the perception that it is difficult to create and sustain such programs, it is not any more difficult in unionized companies than in non-unionized ones. In both instances, management must undertake to make an ongoing commitment to proactive, preventive programs.

To begin, management must create an action plan. Most companies have a business plan; but, unfortunately, most companies do not have a corollary labor relations plan, regardless if they are union or non-union.

The action plan must recognize that, in order to minimize the possibility of labor relations problems, new leadership roles must be instituted that create dynamic workplace relationships. For example, too often management focuses on what it says, not on how it is said. Management must treat employees as it treats those with whom it has personal relationships. If employees perceive management as intimidating, an adversarial relationship will develop, along with concurrent resentments.


It is far better for management to engage employees in an ongoing dialogue rather than a one-side monologue of directives. If there are workplace problems, management should open a dialogue with employees and engage in a process of brainstorming to find mutually agreed-upon solutions. Having been consulted, employees thus feel that they matter, that their opinions count.

An ongoing dialogue will lead to employees' perceptions that management is listening concerns; in addition to listening management can show its concern by doing such things as having a financial expert offer free financial advice about retirement investments, by offering fitness and stress reduction classes at a nominal charge, by having a guidance counselor offer advice to parents about university admissions and costs, etc. As a result of such actions, management will be perceived as sincerely showing that is cares for the welfare of its employees.

Employee perceptions are extremely important, for positive perceptions will significantly enhance employee relationships with management. There re seven essential perceptions that strongly influence the way employees will feel about their workplace and management:

  • Employees must perceive that there is effective communication between management and employees, and effective communication includes management asking, not telling
  • Employees must perceive that the company's policies and practices meet the needs of the workplace and, in particular, satisfy the individual needs of employees
  • Employees must perceive that they like where they work, that they enjoy going to work; this is what produces positive moral
  • Employees must perceive that everyone is working to achieve shared goals, that there is an effective commitment to teamwork
  • Employees must perceive that management can be trusted to honor its promises
  • Employees must perceive that wages and benefits are comparable for similar work in the area
  • Employees must perceive that the company provides training for employees not just to do their jobs, but also to do their well and to facilitate opportunities for advancement

Two-way communication also gives management an opportunity to discuss its own concerns about ever-increasing operating costs, such as healthcare. If employees understand the onerous burden that management faces in paying a portion of healthcare costs, it will understand how those costs may affect wages and other benefits in the future. When such information is imparted many months prior to negotiations, it will more likely be believed because it is not associated with negotiations.

Effective communication results in management and employees sharing understanding of how to improve efficiencies and increase productivity. Once goals are achieved, management can show its appreciation by establishing employee recognition programs, which are an effective way of saying thank you.


Employee surveys not only demonstrate that management is listening, but also provide an effective opportunity to build consensus.

In most employee surveys, anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent of employee express a variety of negative feelings, which are often cries for help. Among the most common concerns frequently voiced by employees are the following: confusion about work assignments, frustration about certain working conditions, feeling oppressed by management, feeling that management does not listen, and feeling that management pays only lip service to employee concerns.

If management wants to create the most efficient and productive work environment, it must effectively deal with such concerns by listening to employees, by demonstrating respect for employee concerns, by brainstorming solutions with employees, and by making employees feel that they are all in this together.

A company wants its employees not merely to agree with management, but to accept management. To achieve acceptance, management needs to have a critical understanding of employees. It requires compromise, coalescence, and consensus.

Without a consensus between management and employees, there will always be the prospect for a heated adversarial relationship blowing up the most carefully laid tracks that had been constructed to reach corporate foals. Surveys will detect areas of discontent that can often be ameliorated with cost-effective programs responsive to employees' needs and concerns. If those areas of discontent are left to fester, how ever, they could ultimately fuel strikes, slowdowns, and unionization.

The consensus that management can create, following the results of survey, is absolutely necessary in making employees feel as if they are stakeholders in a company. A consensus will make them feel as if they are an integral part of the corporate culture, contributors as well as beneficiaries.

A consensus outs an end to the old, unnecessary paradigm of Us vs. Them. When 1 consensus is established, management and employees will be reading from the same page, dealing with key issues.


Once management and employees come to a mutual understanding about how to create better efficiencies and increase productivity, they will share a clear understanding of the drivers that increase success. They will, in other words, be part of the same team.

One thing that makes teamwork successful is recognition. It is essential that management recognize employees, repeat that recognition, and reinforce that recognition.

One of my clients developed a strategy built around those three Rs: recognition, repetition, and reinforcement of that recognition. He then implemented an employee of the month program in which the stellar performance of an employee was recognized by posting an employee photo on a wall. My client, however, miscalculated when he failed to realize that in many instances when the employee's picture came down and was replaced with another, the first employee felt disappointed. I suggested to my client that he create a Wall of Honor or a Room of Honor in which all of the employees would have their photos posted. My client's recognition program has worked, and his company remains non-union in a highly unionized industry.

There is another important element in creating successful teamwork. It is an Employee Advocate representative (EAR) program. A designated employee, one mutually agreed upon by management and employees, becomes the EAR. The purpose of the program is to have a peer person available to assist employees with any of their problems. In establishing the program, management demonstrates its commitment to addressing its employees' concerns.

Being part of a team also makes employees feel that they are stakeholders in a company. Stakeholders believe that their economic well being is directly tied to overall company performance. Stakeholders are excellent team players who enjoy the benefits of increased profitability and accept responsibility for increased costs.


There must be effective communication between employers and employee. Management must learn to listen and express its concern for wellbeing of its employees. It must encourage brainstorming to solve problems.

From effective communication will come a consensus of shared goals, integrating everyone into a successful corporate culture.

From that culture, where everyone is reading from the same page, will come a sense of teamwork, of everyone being in this together, of the elimination of the Us vs Them paradigm.

Contract negotiations in biotech companies are underway: those that have proactive, non-adversarial action plans, such as the one that I have described, will do far better at the negotiation tables than those who either have no programs in place or those who have waited to put such programs in place until shortly before contract negotiations are to begin. Remember: communication, consensus, and teamwork must begin the moment you sign a labor agreement, not weeks or even months before you negotiate a new agreement.

The program that I have explained in this article is designed to ensure that all biotech companies will enjoy increased productivity and profitability as a result of significantly reducing the likelihood of labor unrest, not just in the coming months but for many years as well.

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