Direct Working Relationships: Explaining Your Non-Union Philosophy to Staff

Non-Union comes of Age

Way back in ancient history (1980’s) I was a student in Trinity College. At the time the ‘hot topic’ in Human Resources was negotiations and I wanted to understand that area.  Under the tutalage of Dr. Charles McCarthy – who has since passed away – the advice given was that I should  ignore negotiations and concentrate on the development of the Non-Union sector in Ireland that was emerging in Ireland.  Five years later that advice (along with huge support from Dr Ferdinand Von Prondzynski) morphed into a doctorate and a controversial book called Union-Free.

Complex Topic: While the overall topic about how to maintain a non-union status is complex, one question that continually surfaces from  client companies is how do you communicate this stance internally?”  Here’s a couple of ideas…

Executive Team: Key Working Arrangements

  • People management practices in place are the most important determinant of your success in maintaining a direct relationship with employees. The best defenseis to demonstrate the right managerial behaviors. Nothing promotes cynicism quicker than an espoused set of values, which doesn’t apply in practise. Actions SHOUT; words disappear into the ether.
  • Your approach must ensure that employees believe that a union cannot provide anything that the company doesn’t already provide or is planning to provide in the future.
  • The internal environment shouldn’t allow any ambiguity on the topic of unions. Employees must understand that the company philosophy is to maintain a direct relationship along with the core rationale for this. All managers need to understand that they have a central role in promoting positive employee relations. For example, team leaders and line managers must be skilled in communicating the ‘union free’ message and the company need to invest sufficient time and resources in skilling-up this group to deliver this.
  • It’s vitally important that you have the right measures in place to counteract any external approaches i.e. a proactive ‘early warning system’ is in place.
  • The local management team needs to be seen as decision-makers i.e. not a satellite with key decisions made elsewhere.A subtle but important point in the Irish cultural environment is that the relationship with corporate staff needs to be seen as equal status. Corporate visitors need to carry the same ‘messages’ as those espoused locally. For example, the Norwegian notion of a trade union as a ‘club’ or a ‘partnership’ with management could conflict with the Irish experience where relationships tend to be more adversarial.
  • If a central tenet of the operating philosophy is ‘we are all on the same team’, it’s critically important that your top team role model this behaviour. The Executive team needs to be cohesive on the question of remaining union-free.

Explaining A Non-Union stance to Employees

While each company will express this differently, the following ideas are normally helpful well….

(a) The rights of each individual employee are respected. We don’t need a third party to help us to maintain a positive relationship.

(b) Our people provide the company with competitive advantage.  Viewed in this light, it makes perfect sense to continually invest in the development and growth of our people.

(c)Every effort is made to build a successful and healthy business and to communicate how each of us benefits from this.  We continually communicate the state of the business and  source ideas for future improvements from our people.

(d) Terms and conditions of employment are set at competitive levels vis a vis comparable employments.  In many areas, pay and benefits are superior to comparable employments.

(e) Within all organisations problems occur.  In the event of a problem arising, we act speedily to overcome this.  We take a long-term view of the employment relationship – placing fairness is at the heart of this.

(f) We believe that work can be fun — enjoyed rather than endured — and seek through positive work design to put this philosophy into practise.

Explaining the Non-Union Philosophy to Managers: A Q&A format is often helpful, anticipating questions that people want answers to but are afraid to ask…

Q: Will The Company allow staff to join a Union?

A.We acknowledge the right of any individual to join any association, including a Trade Union. However, there is no obligation in Ireland for any company to recognise a Trade Union in the running of their business. Since the formation of this company we have operated a model that emphasises a direct relationship with staff and has not involved any external third party. To date we’ve been very successful with that model. It has helped us through both good and tough times and there is no intention of changing this way or working. It’s no accident that this is also the model for many of the most successful companies in our industry.

Q: Could a Trade Union improve pay and conditions of employment?

A.The Company has a culture that promotes fairness. A key ingredient in this revolves around the way we handle pay. Pay and conditions are competitive versus other companies. We are fortunate in being involved in a modern, clean working environment, which is very safe. Specifically in relation to pay and conditions, we conduct an annual salary and benefits survey. This is completed in (date) of each year. We also subscribe to 2 additional surveys which are conducted by outside consultants (name these). These mechanisms ensure that we maintain our pay position relative to competitor companies. Issues like vacation time, flextime, the cafeteria, health screening, internal promotions, continuous learning and stock purchases all underpin a central point. To deliver world-class customer service, we have to hire and retain world-class people.

Q: In the event of a significant union recruitment campaign, the Company would have to recognise a Trade Union as it wouldn’t pull out of Ireland with all the € invested?

A.We see Ireland as an extremely attractive location and have invested heavily here. We are now one of the largest operations within our division — larger than X or Y. However, none of us can be complacent that this, on its own, assures a long-term future. If Ireland was to become either too costly, or if employees wanted to change the direct model for successfully doing business, this would have negative consequences on both current and future investments.The need for a Union has not existed historically anywhere in the company. We would be really disappointed if staff felt the need to seek help from an outside third party. If an individual employee or a group of employees feels the need to address any issue, let’s use the open door policy to work together to resolve this.

Q: Would The Company hold it against any person who seeks to have a Union recognised?

If an employee perceived the need for a Union, our first concern would be to understand why he/she felt the need to be represented by a Union.Any employee who has a grievance or complaint (and let’s face it, with over X people on site there will be issues) should use the established channels e.g. problem solving procedure, open door policy etc.We are fully committed to working with individuals to help them resolve issues that arise.

Q: The Company don’t have a problem with unionised suppliers & contractors on the site e.g. security, cleaning, cafeteria?

A. Contract staff are not our employees. We are not in a position to dictate to external companies how they should run their business.  Other companies, for historical and other reasons, choose to involve a Union in the running of their business and that’s their prerogative. Typically, we evaluate suppliers/contractors against a number of criteria (competitive pricing; quality of service; reliability). Once they meet these criteria we are happy to do business with them.

Q: Communications can be one way and staff are not always involved or consulted. That might not be the case if we had a Union?

A.We are trying to build an environment where we work together to ensure the continued success of the business. Over the past X years we have grown from A+ to B+ in terms of staff numbers and it’s a challenge to keep everyone in the loop. While there are areas that we can improve, there are a number of mechanisms to keep people in touch with the business; employee lunches; 1:1’s, staff meetings, business update meetings and the open door allows anyone to involve any level of management in problem resolution.


Q: If the market downturns, we could be vulnerable. Would a Union help to secure jobs?

A. Firstly, let’s remember that we all share the same interests – i.e. to make this a successful company, providing job security and good pay and conditions. In reality unions don’t protect jobs. If you look at the history of ‘redundancies’ in Ireland, most of them occur in the unionised sector. Excellent customer service protects jobs. Our current model of working is the best guarantee for employment security because it provides a customer-focused, responsive organisation. It’s not just ‘talk’. We have an X year history, which proves this case. Since we commenced operations in (date) we have never experienced redundancies or any form of layoffs or short-time working. While there have been some peaks and valleys in demand for our products, every effort has been made to minimise the impact of this. While, in reality, no company can absolutely guarantee job security (market forces are not totally within our control), this is a pivotal part of our philosophy. In the event of a severe business downturn, headcount reductions would be a last rather than a first option for us and we will do everything within our power to avoid this.  If headcount reductions did occur, we would endeavour to help staff find suitable alternative employment.

Q:  Are ‘junior’ staff working here vulnerable?

A. Informality is stressed in the business in a number of ways. Everyone eats in the same cafeteria, uses the same toilets and car park, participates equally in sports and social activities.  Everyone is on first name terms and an open and supportive environment is encouraged including a casual dress code. Rules that apply to one person apply across the board. Our philosophy is one of internal equity. No one who works here, provided that they are making an honest effort to complete their job, is ‘vulnerable’. It might be naieve, but we’d like to believe that the word ‘junior’ simply doesn’t exist in the management vocabulary.

Q: If everything is working well,why would Our Company be a target for a Trade Union?

A.Trade Union membership is in decline throughout Ireland. It’s highest in the Public Sector. The vast majority of multi-nationals establish a direct relationship with employees. Given the fall off in union numbers, the trade union movement is keen to sell its services. In our particular case, the X site would be a bridgehead for the unions (e.g. as most of our neighbouring companies are non-union).

Q: What, in the Company’s View, is the downside of establishing a link with a Trade Union?

A.  A key success factor for our site is an ability to move with pace to meet changing customer requirements. Speed is part of our DNA. The best way to maintain this is to have a direct, robust relationship with our own staff in an internal partnership. It’s a formula that’s worked really well to date.

Obviously, you would craft your own messages.  But, this stuff might give you a ‘head start’ in putting a positive communication in place and help you avoid the tyranny of the blank page. 


PS Lighter Note: (Warning: not for the faint-of heart). Probably a tad Un-PC, but still funny.

A dedicated Teamsters Union worker was attending a convention in Las Vegas and decided to check out the local brothels. When he got to the first one, he asked the Madam, “Is this a union house?”

“No,”she replied, “I’m sorry, it isn’t.”

“Well, if I pay you $100.00, what cut do the girls get?”

“The house gets $80.00 and the girls get $20.00.”

Mightily offended at such an unfair ratio, the man stomped off down the street in search of a more equitable, hopefully unionized shop. His search continue until finally he reached a brothel where the Madam responded, “Why, yes, sir, this IS a Union House.”

The man asked, “So, if I pay you $100.00, what cut do the girls get?”

“The girls get $80.00 and the house gets $20.00.”

“That’s more like it!!!”the Teamster said. He handed the Madam $100.00, looked around the room and pointed to a stunningly attractive blonde.  “I’d like to select that lady at table number 5.”

“I’m sure you would, sir,”said the Madam, then pointing to an 85 year-old woman in the corner, “but Ethel has seniority.”

The Cure: Two guys and a union worker were fishing on a lake one day, when Jesus walked across the water and joined them in the boat. When the three astonished men settled down enough to speak, the first guy asked humbly, “Jesus, I’ve suffered from back pain ever since I took shrapnel in Desert Storm …could you help me?”

“Of course, my son”, Jesus said, and when he touched the man’s back, he felt relief for the first time in years.

The second man, who wore very thick glasses and had a hard time reading and driving, asked if Jesus could do anything about his eyesight.

Jesus smiled, removed the man’s glasses and tossed them in the lake. When they hit the water, the man’s eyes cleared and he could see everything distinctly.

When Jesus turned to heal the union worker, the guy put his hands up and cried defensively:  “Don’t even touch me! I’m on long term disability.”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.



About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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