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Workplace Fairness West
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Blaine Donais

Engaging Unionized Employees


Book Preview:
Engaging Unionized Employees: Employee Morale and Productivity

(Aurora: Canada Law Book, 2010)

Employee engagement has become a primary measure of success for modern workplaces.
Business leaders argue that employee engagement is the best way to give their companies the competitive advantage they need to survive difficult economic times. 
When employees are engaged they devote their discretionary effort to the success of the workplace. 
It should come as no surprise that engaging unionized employees poses unique challenges for modern workplaces.
But where there are challenges there are also potential rewards.  Effective support from a union offers more opportunities for a higher level of engagement than is possible in the average workplace.
Engaging Unionized Employees is an insightful guide to understanding how unionized employees become engaged through the support of their union.

In Depth Chapter Review:
Engaging Unionized Employees explores unions, their motivation and history, their internal challenges and external positioning.   It offers tools to guide you through the process of engaging unionized employees.  Take hold of the competitive advantage waiting for you in your unionized work environment.
This book explains:

  • Why it is important to consider the role of unions in the workplace
  • How involving the union leadership in the operations of the organization will help build trust, morale and productivity among employees
  • How unions operate as democratic organizations
  • How to build trust with the union leadership and ensure that positive working relationships are institutionalized in the organization
  • How to work with union leaders to reinvent relationships and processes in the workplace that respect and honor the role of unions in the workplace
  • Why unions should not be seen as obstacles but as important partners in change management in any organization.

Engaging Unionized Employees, is built on the principle that unionization is a positive state for employment relationships in North America.   Through democratic and effective representation of the needs and interests of employees, unionization can lead to increased voice and loyalty in the workplace.  It can also lead to innovation and increased profits for employers. 

This book is based upon 15 years of research and experience with the concept of “employee engagement” in a unionized environment.  It covers six essential topics:

  • Why involve unions in employee engagement?
  • The role of unions in the workplace
  • Understanding how unions operate
  • Five levels of union involvement
  • When does involvement work?
  • Getting started with engagement through involvement

Chapter 1 - Why Involve Unions in Employee Engagement?
The first chapter explores both the downside of failing to involve unions and the upside of choosing to involve them.  On the downside, research has consistently shown that employee engagement attempts in unionized workplaces are a complete failure when the union is not involved.  The legal and social position of unions in the workplace and the trust they enjoy among their membership, makes it nearly impossible for an employer to do a “work around” when it comes to employee engagement.  Employees will view any “engagement” attempts with suspicion unless the union blesses the process.  Employees expect their union to look after their interest, and by in large, no longer trust employer actors to do so. 

But this is the very reason why it can be easier to engage employees in a unionized environment than a non-union environment.  The upside of involving unions relates directly to the union’s relationship with their own membership.  Through union involvement there will be:

  • better communication with employees,
  • more trust placed in the efforts because the union has vetted the process to ensure no improper motivations from the employer, and
  • process feedback from the unions that will be useful to improving the quality of the program.

Chapter 2 - The Role of Unions in the Workplace
After setting out why it’s a good idea to involve the union leadership, the book describes the various roles that unions play both in the workplace and in our societies.  In addition to the obvious functions like bargaining and enforcing terms and conditions employment, unions play a more subtle social role.  They encourage the inclusion of democratic principles into the workplace.  This makes unionized employees more vocal, but also more aware of the conditions around them.  This is an important parallel to our greater societies.  We all know that democracies are more productive than tyrannies.  The same principle applies to workplaces.  By bringing concepts of democracy (justice and voice) to the workplace, unions make citizens out of employees – citizens with civic duties and responsibilities who are engaged in a way that not union employees could never be.

This chapter also explores the role unions play in the sustenance of our entire liberal and social democratic political systems in the Western world.  Unions act as a balance to corporate power, both in the workplace and in our larger societies.  Understanding this greater societal role should lead employers to consider the value of unions in dictating social and economic policies.  Often smart employers ask unions to participate in economic and industry policy debates.  This is because they realize the value of union voice in such matters.

Chapter 3 - Understanding How Unions Operate
Most employer actors are mystified by the operations of their unions.  Many don’t understand the political pressures that their union counterparts face.  They assume that a good management idea speaks for itself.  But they do not comprehend the political risks that union leaders take in appearing to cooperate with their employer – no matter how good the idea is.  This chapter offers a detailed exposure into the internal workings of unions as democratic organizations.  It explores the roles of various union actors all the way from the shop steward/delegate to the national or even international president.  It also sets out how decisions are typically made, and the challenges that local leaderships face. 

Chapter 4 - Five Levels of Union Involvement
Many employers and union leaders see involvement as akin to “co-management” and both have a generally strong aversion to such an idea.  In reality, however, “involvement” is a natural and expected part of any union-management relationship.  For example, “joint decision-making” is required under all grievance processes.  The decision to settle a grievance is a joint decision. 

There are a number of forms of involvement that do not include “co-management”.  As set out in the diagram below, involvement can include information sharing, consultation, recommendations and decisions in addition to co-management.  This chapter explores the difference between the five levels of involvement.  Based on research and experience, different levels of involvement might be more appropriate in different circumstances.  For both unions and employers, it is important to distinguish between these different levels of involvement so that involvement in general is not dismissed as “co-management”. 

Chapter 5 - When Does Involvement Work?
Why do so many attempts at involvement and engagement fail?  And why do some succeed?  These questions are explored in this chapter.  After a review of most of the high profile involvement processes like Saturn, Corning, Kaiser Permanente, Magna, Harley Davidson and other groups, a number of principles for success have been uncovered.  These principles fall into three broad categories: Process Management, Relationship Management and Change Management.  This chapter explores each of these areas and arrives at a list of advice for the reader who wants to engage unionized employees.

Chapter 6 - Getting Started with Engagement through Involvement
Where there are some employers who don’t even want to bother, there are others who would like to improve morale and productivity but don’t know how to get started.  This chapter sets out a simple four step process for any union and employer who would like to get started.  This process includes designing goals, defining the existing state of involvement, and moving toward the desired state.  The appendix at the end of the book, takes this process to a much deeper level for larger workplaces.  It sets out how to charter teams and sets out four phases for any strategy including assessment, design, implementation and monitoring.  There are a number of convenient check-lists and tools to help the parties make the most of this effort to engage unionized employees.

Engaging Unionized Employees, offers employers a different perspective on how best to get the best out of their employees in a unionized workplace.  The book encourages employers to stay away from the traditional carrot and stick approach and to recognize that dignity, respect, fair treatment and involvement are the real keys to effective employee engagement.  Unions can play a fundamental role in achieving these results.  Any employer that recognizes this fact will have a considerable advantage over those who do not.  

Engaging Unionized Employees
is published through Canada Law Book can be ordered by clicking this link:
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