Chapter 11
Some Pointers on
Working with Unions
While working with unions is usually more difcult than not, it can be done
successfully if a relationship of mutual respect is established. The unions I
have worked with respected one thing: competency. That means you are
solving problems, removing barriers, and making the plant run efficiently.
In return, the union expects not to be treated as an adversary (even though
sometimes that is hard to do). My experience in working with unions is
somewhat limited—one 6-year stint. But, during that time I had three differ-
ent assignments, so I did notice a few things that you may find useful.
1. There are almost always two sides to a story, and an impartial, objec-
tive manager can usually resolve differences amicably. The presence
of a union puts a third party in the way and makes resolution consid-
erably more difcult. This is because the union works at convincing
employees that if they did not have a union, management would not
treat them fairly. Thus, without a shop steward, management would not
listen to them or address their concerns. (If this is actually true at your
facility, then you probably deserve a union.) As a result, management
must work all that much harder to demonstrate every day that they can
be trusted because every bad decision will be written down and used
forevermore as examples why the union is needed.
2. Regardless of whether your plant has a unionized workforce, you must
treat individual employees as if you did not. If someone comes to you
with a suggestion to improve the process or operating procedures, you
126 ◾  Removing the Barriers to Efcient Manufacturing
must act on that request whenever possible. (Just make absolutely sure
that it does not infringe on established work rules.) If you establish this
behavior as the norm, employees and the union will see that manage-
ment has priorities in the right order—removing barriers and preserving
the enterprise. And, you will be seen as having integrity. No one can
take anything away from that.
3. If you or your team makes a mistake interpreting the work rules and
causes a loss of opportunity for overtime or extra pay for someone,
in all likelihood the union will file a grievance. If you determine that
it was management’s fault, pay the grievance. Do not drag it out. The
sooner it is settled the better. Eat your mistakes and learn from them to
avoid repeating them and looking stupid. Your integrity is worth a lot
more than a few hours of overtime pay.
4. Unions prefer to make all work assignment decisions based on senior-
ity. This will be a huge barrier for your organization because the right
person for a job is very often not the senior person. There will be con-
siderable extra costs associated with this one aspect. Unions have one
job classification: member. As far as they are concerned, all members
are equally qualified, and the most senior member gets to pick the most
desirable work assignments. The result of this is that you will be forced
to use salaried employees to do things like training that you would pre-
fer to be done by your hourly employees. Therefore, the management
team in a union plant will have to have more people than a nonunion
Occasionally, the senior union member will be a satisfactory candi-
date for a trainer or some other special assignment. You will want to
take advantage of that, but can you really afford to? Once you do, the
union will take the position that this is “their work,” and there will be
a labor dispute if you ever revert back to doing the job with a salaried
5. Without a doubt, the best way to deal with unions is by being compe-
tent. If you remove the barriers that keep people from taking pride in
their work, guess what? They’ll take pride in their work. If your plant
is clean and safe, operating smoothly, and the people are making lots
of high-quality product, you should not have a union problem. The
employees should be having too much fun.
6. Every time you make a work system change, expect the union to want
the new job to have a higher rate of pay. You will have to have your
facts together in order to persuade them otherwise. And, if there is any

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