10 Things Every Manager and Supervisor Must Know if the Organization’s Employees are Represented by a Union: Part Two

The article tests your labor relations savvy. You’ve answered the questions, now compare your answers with those of the author.

In Part One, we asked the questions. In this part, we’ll look at answers. Remember, some answers may be modified by a negotiated agreement or by the law that governs your recognition. You may be surprised by how similar private and public sector labor relations can be.

1. Why do we have to deal with unions?

You don’t, unless the union has won a representational election in which a majority organization’s employees voting in such an election voted to be represented. In fact, in some states, right to work laws severely limit union representation. In my home state of Virginia, for example, it’s unconstitutional under state law for a city, county or state Agency to recognize a union. However, if your organization is covered by state or Federal labor laws, you must bargain and deal with a duly elected union.

2. Who decides for management what gets agreed to with the union?

This is another variable answer. Generally, though, the most senior manager at the level of recognition calls the shots. By level of recognition, we mean the segment of the organization that includes the represented employees. For example, large government agencies may have different unions at a regional level or one nationwide union. The wider the scope, the higher the buck passes. Of course, whose ox may get gored can have an impact as well. For example, manager discretion at the local level can be trumped if national policies are an issue at the bargaining table or a local decision will give a union leverage at other locations.

3. What management decisions create an obligation to negotiate with the union?

This answer is common to all. Any decision that proposes a new working condition, an arguably different interpretation of an old working condition or alters working conditions in a way not covered by a labor agreement will create a bargaining obligation.

4. What’s the difference between a grievance and an unfair labor practice?

Regardless of your sector, grievances address either employee discipline or the interpretation or application of a labor agreement. Unfair labor practices allege a violation of a governing labor law. The Federal sector, presumably because of the inherent wackiness of it’s governing board, allows grievances and unfair labor practices to be filed on the same or similar issues. The private sector governing body defers to the grievance procedure over the statutory process.

5. Who decides grievances for management and why was that person selected?

Another variable answer. Most grievance procedures have progressive steps providing a decision opportunity to lower level managers in the organization’s chain of command. However, the last step is usually a very senior official since cases that go to arbitration may affect all employees within the scope of the labor agreement.

6. Who decides Unfair Labor Practices for management and why was that person selected?

This can get complicated. Unfair Labor Practices which allege statutory violations are often closely run by an organization’s legal staff. While lawyers hate to make decisions, they will usually advise a limited number of options. If a matter can be resolved informally, lower level managers may be involved but the broader the impact or the costlier the outcome, the more senior the decision maker will be. Of course, all the answers in this article assume a micro-management neutral organization. The more executives like to play in all decisions or the more risk averse the lower levels may be will profoundly affect this answer.

7. What about performance standards is bargainable?

Finally, an unequivocal answer. At least in the Federal sector, nothing about the determination of a performance standard is bargainable. In fact, a Federal agency can even unilaterally set the number of rating levels that will be used in an evaluation.

8. How much official time should union representatives get?

Another relatively easy answer. With one exception (in the Federal sector), labor agreements set the amount of official time an employee-representative may use to deal with grievances and other representational business. The exception in the Feds deals with time at a bargaining table and can be found at 5 U.S.C. 7121.

9. What kind of relationship does management want a supervisor to have with the union?

While I can’t speak for your organization, I can address what generally considered a successful relationship and it has five elements. Effective relationships exist when the supervisor (or other management representative) acts:

  • Consistent with governing law
  • Professionally
  • Cordially
  • At arms length
  • Consistently with the applicable labor agreement

10.When do I have to invite the union to sit in on a meeting I call with employees?

Generally, there are two concepts to keep in mind. The first has to do with investigations. Under a 1975 Supreme Court decision and adopted by the Federal sector and state jurisdictions, a represented employee is entitled to union representation whenever that individual is interviewed in connection with an investigation, reasonably fears discipline and requests a union representative. As with any rule, there’s more to it but this is the basic right. Second, an organization may not bypass the union and deal directly with employees on working conditions. This usually means that if you plan to meet with represented workers and discuss working conditions, you may have an obligation to involve the union at the meeting and should seek advice before you hold the meeting.

I hope this generated some discussion in your organization. And that the answers gave you something to think about and somewhere to start. I teach labor relations for supervisors and managers regularly and have found much misinformation can get out there unless organizational leadership gets the word out and reinforces it regularly.

As with all my FedSmith articles, I alone am responsible for the content. So if you agree or disagree, use the available comment form and let us know your thoughts.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.