The HR Team’s Guide to Managing Relationships With Unions

May 13, 2024
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In recent years, there’s been a lot of media buzz around workers taking action for better working conditions. 

From the widespread strikes by French workers protesting President Macron’s pension reforms to the UK’s ongoing rail strikes, one thing is clear: labour unions are still a force to be reckoned with.

Despite this, union membership has been falling steadily in most European countries for over a decade — and many HR professionals have little experience negotiating and communicating with unions. 

If that’s your situation, don’t worry. We’ve put together this guide to help HR teams foster positive, productive relationships with unions, and achieve positive outcomes for everyone involved.

What is a labour union? 

Let’s start with the basics: a labour union (or trade union) is a group of workers that comes together to negotiate working conditions on behalf of other workers. As an HR pro, there are two types of union representatives you might come into contact with: 

  • Local representatives or shop stewards: These people work for your organisation and take on the role of union rep in addition to their main job. They may be entitled to a certain amount of time off work to complete these additional duties. 
  • Full-time officers: These people are employees of the union, and their full-time job is representing workers. They might work with members in several different organisations. 

Typically, we think of unions as working to improve pay for their members — and that’s a big part of their role. But unions also frequently step in to solve problems related to health and safety, environmental issues, redundancy and welfare benefits. 

Ultimately, the purpose of a labour union is to address the power imbalance between an employer and its employees by allowing workers to collectively bargain for better working conditions.

Exactly what unions look like varies from one country to another. But wherever you’re based, HR teams need to have a solid understanding of the laws that govern unions and develop effective strategies for working with them to overcome conflict and reach agreements. 

What does HR need to know about labour unions? 

Unions and company HR teams are often seen as opposing forces, and relationships between the two haven’t always been positive. But we’re here to argue that unions and HR effectively want the same things — and should be working together to achieve them. 

Because here’s the thing: when you boil it down, the role of an HR team is to contribute to the success of its organisation. And, although it might not seem like it, this is ultimately the aim of a labour union too. After all, a successful, profitable business is more likely to provide job security and acceptable working conditions to its employees — which is what unions want. 

However, there are times when the objectives of the business conflict with employee interests, which is when unions tend to get involved. In these situations, employers need to effectively manage conflict, seek compromise and find solutions that work for everyone — and HR has a key role to play. 

Key interactions between unions and HR teams

So, how do labour unions and HR teams come into contact with each other? Here are some of the moments when you might need to work with union representatives as an HR professional.

Collective bargaining

A collective bargaining agreement is an agreement between an employer and a labour union, which outlines the terms and conditions of employment. These agreements are reached through negotiation between the union and the company. 

The negotiation process is typically thought of as adversarial and contentious — but HR can play a role in changing this. Your objective should be to reach solutions that both meet your business objectives and feel ‘fair’ to the union. 

Dealing with grievances 

When a unionised employee feels they have been treated unfairly by their employer, they have the right to file a grievance. At this point, a union representative will step in and be present for conversations between the employee and the company. 

HR teams should work with company leaders and union representatives to ensure that collective bargaining agreements are respected and to find mutually beneficial solutions. They can act as a mediator between the parties to help them find common ground. 

Of course, a large part of HR’s role is ensuring that these grievances don’t arise in the first place. This involves ensuring that managers and leadership are familiar with the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and helping them build conflict resolution skills so that small issues don’t become big problems. 

Consulting on company decisions 

In some countries and industries, employers are required to consult with unions on various business-impacting decisions. For example, in the UK, employers have to hold collective consultations if they plan to make 20 or more employees redundant. In situations like this one, the rules for how and when the consultation happens are quite strict. 

In other businesses, consultation may be less formal, but it’s still important to have set principles to guide these conversations and ensure they’re productive. And HR plays a critical role in putting these guidelines together and ensuring they’re respected. 

4 ways HR can build productive relationships with unions 

So, let’s get into it: how can HR teams work to build positive, productive relationships with unions? Read our top four tips below. 

1. Build mutual trust through communication

HR can help to facilitate productive conversations and better cooperation between union reps and company management. They should also organise regular meetings between management and union reps, and offer guidance to both sides. 

As we’ve said, HR and unions ultimately have the same objective — even if it might not always seem like it. That means they should work together to establish common goals and find ways of achieving them that make sense for both sides. 

2. Support managers and senior leaders

An effective relationship between unions and employers requires the buy-in of senior leaders and people managers. And HR can play a key role in bringing them on board. 

For example, CIPD guidance suggests that HR should build a business case for senior managers to help them understand the importance of strong union relationships. HR should also stress that unions are not a threat or an enemy, but a key stakeholder in the workplace. They should encourage senior leaders to take the union’s views on board and build positive relationships with employees and their representatives. 

Of course, HR should also help managers to deal with day-to-day issues that could lead to union involvement. The goal is to avoid small problems becoming larger ones by tackling them early and fairly. It’s also important to make sure managers have the relevant training on collective bargaining agreements and what they can and can’t do in their management of unionised workers. 

3. Develop informal relationships with union reps 

As well as formal consultations and negotiations, HR professionals should work to build positive, informal relationships with union representatives. This way, they’ll have an insight into any potential problems that arise in the workplace before they become too serious. 

Casual, off-the-record conversations with union reps also allow HR teams to explore reactions to any potential workplace changes before instigating a formal process — which can help leadership to prepare. 

Of course, all of this takes time and effort. To be effective, relationships between HR professionals and union reps should be genuine and based on mutual trust and respect.

4. Develop effective negotiation skills 

As an HR professional, a large part of your work with unions will likely involve negotiations. And how you approach this process can have a big impact on employee relations. 

The CIPD’s guidelines on negotiating with unions suggest six principles of effective negotiation for an HR professional: 

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve. That means thinking about the actual results of a possible action, not just how you’ll get there. For example, if you’re negotiating a proposed change in shift patterns, the goal may be to provide better customer service. Being open to different ways of achieving that goal can help you in the negotiation process.
  2. Be flexible. The key is to look for win-win solutions that will keep everyone happy. While this may not always be possible, flexibility gets you a lot further than sticking rigidly to your original position without listening to the counterarguments. 
  3. Don’t think of compromise as a weakness. In a negotiation, compromise is key. If you go into the process with an open mind and willingness to hear the other side, you’re much more likely to find a solution that suits everyone. 
  4. Listen carefully. To have a productive discussion, you need to fully understand what the other person is trying to say — not just what you think they’re saying. That means that (actually) listening is crucial. 
  5. Focus on long-term relationships. In negotiations, there’s often a balance to be struck between short-term setbacks and your long-term relationship with the union. Think carefully about whether it’s worth taking a small hit now to retain goodwill for the future. 
  6. Have a fallback position. Before you go into negotiations, you should have a clear idea of what you’ll do if they don’t go your way. For example, you might decide to withdraw your proposal or seek to impose it anyway. You should think carefully about the implications of either approach. 

Where to learn more 

In this article, we’ve tried to give you an overview of how HR teams can form positive relationships with unions. But each country is different, and there are specific rules you have to abide by depending on where you’re based. We’d recommend reading about the laws concerning union relations in your country to make sure you’re doing everything by the book. 

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