The Good and the Bad Union Representative

What defines a “good” or “effective” labor organization and its leadership?

I am a former Labor Relations Specialist.  I have been teaching basic labor law to Federal audiences for decades since leaving that job.  For several years prior to this career, I represented the Department of the Navy in its dealings with three labor unions that represented over 6,500 employees.  Arbitrations and unfair labor practice charges were common at our (now defunct) shipyard.  I was one of three specialists designated to be the face of management.

I’ve been thinking a lot about (and interacting with) Federal employee unions over many years.  The same questions arise.  Who joins a union and pays dues? Who among those members runs or volunteers for elected office? Who do they primarily represent?  How should they perform that function? What makes for an effective union representative?

Lately, I’ve been encountering a rash of agency officials with a profoundly negative experience of their employee representatives.  Fewer clients want union officials invited to attend my management seminars.  The most common complaint is that supervisors and managers won’t feel free to ask questions and/or express concerns if there is a union presence in the room.  I find such attitudes understandable, but disappointing.

Power to the people

Once, an agency client approached me regarding their aggressively adversarial union leadership.  They asked if I could be of assistance in helping to marginalize and contain these unpleasant and demanding people.  Investigation revealed that about 20% of employees were dues-paying union members.  This should not be shocking in an “open shop” environment where non-members can receive the benefits of a labor agreement and representation without investing bi-weekly dues.

Their union local had, by their reckoning, become a club for malcontents.  My contact suggested that most bargaining unit (represented) employees were also turned off by the union’s leadership.  Taking them at their word (perceptions of union leadership can are notoriously unreliable), I suggested they begin fostering a climate where more employees wanted to join that union local.  That response shocked them.

I proposed that all employees (bargaining unit and management alike) attend a half-day seminar concerning Federal labor law.  It would include, among other topics, the fact that unions are representative democracies.  (By comparison management is the equivalent of an authoritarian regime.)  The presentation would be neither “pro” or “anti” union in its tone or subject matter.  After much deliberation, they decided to have me present four such seminars.

Along with everyone else, the union officials in question attended these cafeteria-filled events.  As agency officials had predicted, they were somewhat obnoxious.  My job was be polite, clear and informative.  Within a few months, union membership had increased by over 30% — not so remarkable, given the small number of members before my arrival.

Do more members matter?

About a year after that job, I got a call from a recently elected local president of that same local.  He and his new cadre of officers (the old leadership having been voted out) were questioning their national union leadership and wondering if they could change affiliations.  He reported that the new local leadership was making a tangible difference and believed that their national union’s training and advice was more adversarial than useful.  He and a majority of members wanted the bickering to end.

In another place and time, a jointly-attended basic labor relations class was disrupted by the local union president.  He was challenging my interpretation of “management rights” as defined in statute and interpreted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority.  His objections were misplaced and his anger was disruptive.  The managers and union representatives attending became very nervous.  He eventually stormed out of the room.  Within months of my departure, union local members had thrown out their elected president and replaced him.  All of this leads me to wonder whether a more democratic union is actually a better one in the eyes of the bargaining unit they represent.

What defines a “good” or “effective” labor organization and its leadership?  Is the best union leader the one who takes no prisoners and fights for every inch of employee rights and convenience?  Perhaps it’s the one who projects concern for their agency’s mission and wants to work with managers to best achieve that from their constituents’ perspectives is a better representative.  These are issues of style, but also substance.  In the end, only dues-paying union members can decide.

Let’s do lunch

In my experience, aggressive labor leaders more commonly emerge from an environment where managers are segregated from their workforce.  When I worked for the (now defunct) Charleston Naval Shipyard, managers excluded the union from decision-making meetings unless forced to do so.  Moreover, I noticed that top managers lunched in a separate area from their workforce.  They explained to me that lunchtime afforded them a relaxed setting to hear from their peers and catch up on workplace news.

What hadn’t occurred to these senior leaders was that lunching with their non-supervisory subordinates (or even workers from other areas of the shipyard) might afford opportunities just as valuable.  They heard grievances (and there were many) but did not see the prospect of preventing them by making efforts to better integrate themselves with the workforce.  When they met with subordinates, it was usually their own agenda in hand.  They were similarly out of touch with their front-line supervisors.

To be fair, these gentlemen (and in my day, virtually all of them were men) moved from one meeting to another day in and day out.  They commonly arrived early and left late.  The demands placed on them seemed endless and I admired many of them for their commitment and willingness to face challenges much greater than my own.  By the same token, the union was seen as a time sink that distracted them from what was really important – the overhaul and repair of ships and submarines.

Remembering Pogo

I, of course, was not immune.  One day, after a particularly volatile meeting with union leadership I was complaining about the tactics and behavior of two union officials.  My most esteemed colleague responded to my characterization of those two by saying, “They are just a reflection of us.”  I cannot forget that moment.

We had be taught by our labor relations superiors to “Give the union nothing, and make it retroactive” and “Get away with what you can get away with.”  Those were the first two “Laws of Labor Relations”.  Should we have expected a more cooperative attitude across the table?  Our style was different – they were volatile, were we well-mannered.  But, in the words of the old comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

As I look at Federal labor-management relations decades later, Neville Chamberlain comes to mind.  That infamous prime minister of England gave Germany a green light to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938.  No one in union or management wants to play that role.  Concessions and capitulation are not what our constituents are asking of us.  By the same token going into labor relations with a game plan of “Winning is everything”, may create and/or embolden the very monster we intended to slay.

The other picture of a union

What if union locals were actively recruiting some of the best and most respected employees for union membership?  What if union leadership included ambitious workers who want to advance into leadership positions?  While this may seem far-fetched to some, I’ve known it to happen.

These employees are “sold” on joining and paying dues by the prospect of participation.  They can represent employees in forums and other settings where they can show their creativity and negotiating skills.  They get face time with higher level managers who would otherwise not notice them.  In my own experience, such environments that have led to advancement of both those managers and representatives who have demonstrated their problem-solving skills.

At these Federal activities, labor representatives often advance into HR positions and supervisory roles, carrying with them a firm command of union perspectives and operations.  They have been replaced in the union hierarchy by others – both angry and not.  All get attention from leadership that is committed to including the union in meaningful dialogue.  …and, perhaps most importantly, front-line leadership is not excluded from participating as well.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Such relationships are unusual.  Yet the expenses associated with adversarial labor-management relationships are real and not commonly quantified.  When union representatives are most attentive to those who are dissatisfied, they are spending time that might be better invested improving performance appraisals, organizing recognition programs, improving workplace safety, and promoting equal employment opportunity.

In these organizations, when leadership changes at the top, union leadership and the new incumbent must begin working on their relationship early and often.  Sometimes union officers have access to leadership that has front-line supervisors soliciting their assistance in getting mission-related matters escalated.

I expect most readers (pro- and anti-union) will read this posting with attitudes that have become hardened over years.  “Managers are evil” and “Unions are a plague” seem to dominate any conversation on this subject.  The few, however, who represent labor and management for their agency may want to look in the mirror and ask themselves if the best and most respected managers and employees in their organization would approve of their perspective and tactics.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to