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Implementing Change in a Unionized Environment

Implementing large scale change can be challenging. Implementing change with a unionized workforce can be daunting if not managed properly. Labor unions carry a tremendous amount of power and can alter the course of a change initiative if not carefully managed. Historically speaking, the relationship between unions and management has always been contentious – especially during contract negotiations. While organizational leaders may find unions difficult, they must remember they are there for a reason. Labor unions ensure their members have fair working conditions, fair wages, benefits and work hours, and a safe place to work. Keeping this in mind, successful change with a unionized workforce requires intentional actions designed to engage and inform while providing a forum for union leaders to participate in the process.

During a Workday ERP implementation at a large urban school district in Northeast Ohio, we worked with several unions that represented teachers, custodians, food service workers and bus drivers to name a few. Based on past experience, the program sponsors were initially concerned that including union leaders would slow down progress with the ERP implementation, however project leaders were able to successfully convince the program sponsors that, while it may be challenging, including union leaders in the process upfront would alleviate a lot of downstream issues as the implementation progressed.  While difficult at first, we learned that the following actions were required to successfully implement change with a unionized workforce.

Acknowledge that union members are also stakeholders and act accordingly. A stakeholder is any person, organization, or group (internal or external) that is affected by the business or the change in how business gets done. Large scale ERP implementations that impact how the work gets done will likely impact a significant portion of an organization. If the change impacts any aspect of how unionized workers interact with the organization or get their jobs done, they become stakeholders and should be given the same considerations (time, thought, resources, and support) as non-union employees.

Engage union leaders in the process. When actively engaged in the change process, union leaders become the face of change for their members. Since union leaders have the trust of their members, they provide the leverage organizational leaders need to more effectively drive change within the unionized workforce. When union representation is excluded, they are more likely to create difficulties that can derail the project and possibly create costly delays. Below are a few tips for engaging union members.

  • Establish monthly meetings to brief union leaders on project status and engage in two-way dialog to address union member concerns and ensure they are aligned with program objectives (what’s changing, why it’s changing, duration of change, who will be affected, how they will be affected, and support and training).
  • Provide union leaders with a primary point of contact for the change initiative. When dealing with unions, the point of contact should always be an executive sponsor. This is a good faith effort to demonstrate openness and builds trust.
  • Leverage union leaders to cascade information and resources to their members.
    • We found that union members are more likely to read and respond to requests from union leaders than management or project team members. As a result, this was our most used communication tactic for union members.

Abide by the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). According to SHRM, a collective bargaining agreement is a written legal contract between an employer and the union representing the employees. The CBA is the result of an extensive negotiation process between the parties regarding topics such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. Once the CBA is reached, the employer and the union are required to abide by the agreement. The CBA should be referenced at every stage of the change initiative to ensure the organization is adhering to contract terms and reduce the possibility of grievances and/or legal action against the organization. As we identified changes during the implementation, we worked with department leaders in Payroll and Human Resources to align our activities with the requirements of the CBA. If we were unclear about terminology in the CBA we consulted the program sponsors who provided clarity or consulted union leaders for clarification.

Use multiple ways to communicate the change impact to union members. Effective communication is a key part of successful change initiatives and varies based on audience. Many union workers do no use computers or laptops to do their day-to-day jobs. This meant emails and electronically stored resources would not be accessed in a timely manner. We found this to be the case with custodians, food service workers, bus drivers, and other union members. As a result, we leveraged locations where union members congregated such as break rooms, cafeterias, and meeting rooms to informally share information, post updates on bulletin boards, and display table tents and flyers. We also requested time during established department/team meetings to share updates and resources.

These tactics helped us effectively engage the unions in a meaningful and productive way. While the road was sometimes bumpy, we developed a process that fostered two-way dialog, proactively addressed small issues before they became major problems, and increased communication, collaboration, and trust between union and organizational leaders.

What steps will you take to pro-actively engage union members?

Brenda Robinson is a senior consultant in Avaap Advisory Services Change Management practice. She brings broad-based experience as a change management leader with focus on customer satisfaction, process adoption and efficiency, and bottom-line improvements. Contact Brenda to discuss change management in your organization.