Achieving Success as an HR Professional in an Organized Environment

By Unoda C. Moyo, Ph.D.

The following represents opinions of the author and do not reflect those of his current or previous employers.

The practice of Human Resource Management in an organized environment is a slowly waning art form as the number unionized workplaces continue to decline.  According to the January 2011 report  by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, the union membership in the US continued to drop to a new low. In 1983, the report points out; the union membership rate in the U.S. was 20.1 percent, with about 17.7 million union workers compared to the 2010 total of 14.7 million, or 11.9% of the American workforce. This is a decline of 16.9% over a 27 year period. The majority of unionized workers are public employees, and these employees constitute 36.2% of the public workforce, compared to 6.9% in the private sector. Another important note from the report; union membership rate was highest among workers 55 to 64 years old (15.7 percent), and the lowest rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.3 percent).

As fewer and fewer workplaces continue to be organized, fewer HR professionals are gaining experience working in organized environments.  Additionally, some, inevitably, come into their new roles with negative perceptions of unions and try to prove that they are good caring HR professionals with good practices for their employees and don’t need union operatives to broker the relationships between managers and employees in their organizations.  They mean well.  It’s also true that some HR professionals believe that good working environments with excellent management practices render unions obsolete, and look at organized environments as relics of a time long passed.  So, if you are an HR professional who wakes up one day to find yourself having to maneuver in an organized environment, here are seven things you need to learn and remember which may be helpful for you. 

  1. Accept the organized environment.
  2. Learn the main collective bargaining agreement(s) provisions and educate your managers of the same
  3. Get to know the shop steward and the organizers
  4. Understand the three main roles union officials play
  5. Know when to give the stewards political cover with their members
  6. Give the stewards heads up on what is going to be happening that is likely to result in member questions
  7. It’s not about you, and it’s not personal

Accepting the organized environment

It does not pay to dwell on the past and how you did not have to deal with unions in your previous HR professional stops, or how easy it would have been for you to implement your greatest ideas if there was no union because you will just be wasting yours and a lot of other people’s time. These are the cards you are dealt, and this is your new normal.  Accept the new reality and make the best of it. 

Learning the main contract provisions and educating your managers

You will have at least one collective bargaining agreement to learn, so you will need to get up to speed. You really can’t know the entire contract very well just by studying it.  You will often learn as you go, and as individual articles are brought to question. It’s all about wages, hours and working conditions, and very little else.  When a contractual question is raised, do your research before you answer. The answer is almost never intuitive.  You never want to answer on the fly.  Lost credibility is tough to restore if you answer incorrectly. 

Before questions are asked, however, find records of past arbitrations or unfair labor practice (ULP) cases that were previously “litigated” and decided.  This will give you a window into what the past issues have been and how they were decided.  Issues will often orbit the same contract articles year after year.  Focus on those contract articles and provisions and understand them. Make those the important features of the contract that you want to make sure your managers also understand. Other articles may be well understood and not at issue. Also, find previous management responses to grievances that were settled or that were dropped before they reached arbitration or during arbitration.  Once again this is your window to the past issues.  Set up brown bag lunches to remind your managers of some contractual issues that need reminding.  When you teach, that is when you truly learn.

Understanding the roles union officials play

Union officials, including stewards, are like elected officials in any political environment. They have three distinct roles that you will need to understand.  They have roles as representatives (they are there to support, speak and advocate for their members), “legislators” (they negotiate contracts, and that is not far removed from law making), and overseers (they oversee the contract(s) on behalf of their members to make sure the contract provisions are adhered to).  It’s important to understand at any given moment what role they are playing. When they are in their “representative role” it is not the time to expect “reasonableness” from them. It is political theater where they are demonstrating toughness designed to impress the employee they are representing. Don’t feed it.  Stick to your facts and don’t debate.  When they are “legislating” you can expect some degree of “reasonableness” but it is also a chase game, so be careful of the moves you are asked to make because once you make them it is impossible to redo.  When they are “Overseeing” they are also in the rule writing mode.  In other words they will try to get at this stage what they did not get at the bargaining table. Make sure the interpretation of language is what was understood at negotiations because invariably experienced union officials will always interpret the contract to limit management scope.

Getting to know the shop steward and the organizers

The shop steward is your outlet valve.  Set up a regular (at least monthly) meeting with the steward; a touch base meeting of some kind if you will.  Let them know that the meeting is for them to air their concerns or observations with you.  You never promise to fix anything, but you commit to look into their concerns and come back with a response. You are not negotiating; you are just listening and collecting organizational intelligence so that you can have an idea of what is going on so you can address problems in their infancy.

Knowing when to give the stewards political cover

Stewards often have to struggle representing some of their worst employees.  They have a duty to represent all their members.  The fear most union officials have is to be accused of failing to represent.  So, complement them on their great representation in front of the employee they are representing as you disagree vehemently with their advanced arguments.

Give the stewards heads up on what’s going to be happening that is likely to result in member questions

When your organization is about to do some things that are within your right to do, but which may result in employees questioning your practice, let the steward know.  Sometimes even agreed upon contractual events may surprise employees at implementation time (e.g. pay freezes, furloughs, etc.).  When contracts are agreed to, effective dates are usually down the road and union operatives may forget until one of their members say: “I just noticed on my pay check….”.  Let the union steward know the kind of questions they may be getting from their members. You don’t want the steward to be surprised.

 It’s not about you, and it’s not personal

Finally, and most important for your mental health: Please understand, an organized environment is not about you or your values.  For example, in many grievances following disciplinary actions, the main union target (remember they are playing their representative role) will be the investigation that led to the action.  As an HR professional, you will probably be the one that did the investigation, and the union will question all elements of the investigation and even your competency to conduct the investigations.   Just remember, there is no such thing as a perfect investigation.  There will always be something to question. You should never consider this questioning as a personal attack on you or your competency.

Remember, this is an art, so what is recommended here will not help everybody or every situation. Use it carefully.


6 thoughts on “Achieving Success as an HR Professional in an Organized Environment

  1. This is a good overview of the union environment and the necessary considerations to achieve a successful win-win outcome in dealing with a union.


  2. I have worked in a union environment since 1996 and I have experienced all of the above first-hand. Good advice, Dr. Moyo.


  3. This is the best advice and most educational information for not just HR representatives but all professionals. This information gives more insight into what could work to improve the work environment for all employees no matter what the field. I encourage companies to implement this idea.


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