I recently received feedback from a reader who thought my
article on best management practices was a little “soft.” He said
that he was tired of bad management and poor pay in government IT, and the only
way to fix the issue was through unionization.

I feel for this particular individual, because if you’re in a
situation where you have bad management and low pay, there’s not much that
keeps you coming to work each day, and even less that motivates you to perform
well. However, having said that, unionization is not a cure for bad management.
While it may help with pay, lousy
management can still prevail.

I have managed in union and non-union environments. They can both
be positive places to work, but the non-union environment is certainly easier from
a manager’s perspective. But before we get into that, let’s talk about why you
might consider joining a union in the first place. Labor and trade unions
negotiate with employers on the part of their members to determine the
conditions of employment. This negotiation process is called collective bargaining, and it’s governed
by federal and state laws, administrative agencies, and judicial decisions.

Basics of collective bargaining

Workers organize for a variety of reasons, such as better
wages, safer working conditions, protection from exploitation, and more job
security. Basically, some workers feel that the only way to get any change from
management is through collective action. There are several existing unions for government
workers at all levels, so many of the job functions are already under
collective bargaining agreements. However, if you’re working in a non-union
shop, an existing union will sometimes offer to aid employees in organizing
their own local chapter. If there is interest among the employees in organizing
a union, the sponsoring organization will “campaign” to convince the
employees that unionization is the way to go, and then a vote is held. (This is
somewhat of an oversimplification, but the process is close.)

During the campaign period, as in most political campaigns, there’s
a lot of talk directed towards the ills that workers are feeling, workers are
promised the moon, and a great deal of management-bashing (deserved or
underserved) can occur.

I witnessed this first hand a few years back when I oversaw an
IT department (non-union) that was merging with another IT department (union). For
a year prior to the merger, my employees were wooed in order to convince them
to join the union in the other department. I could not comment, but I heard my
employees debate the pros and cons of unionization. Here are a few valid points
that were made:


  1. Higher salaries. Even though I worked very hard to
    keep our salaries competitive, the union positions paid higher wages—not
    by much, but enough to make it very tempting.
  2. Job security (for some). Everyone knew that layoffs
    would come soon after the merger, so those with a great deal of time in
    the organization were tempted by union seniority rules. According to this
    rule, people who are laid off are able to bump someone else with less
    seniority out of his or her position.
  3. Negotiated raises. Seeing the raises that the union
    workers got over the years compared to the non-union raises—this
    definitely was a plus for unionization.


  1. Union dues. If workers join the union, they have to pay
    monthly dues for the privilege of being represented. I can’t remember the
    exact amount, but it was significant enough to make the non-union
    employees think twice about it.
  2. Representation by a group of people who really don’t
    understand their jobs well. Since IT is usually a small minority of the
    total workers, the elected union leadership tends to reflect the less
    “technical” jobs in government. Therefore, many of the non-union
    staff felt that they would be represented by people who didn’t have a clue
    what they did.
  3. Promotion and layoff process. In a union environment,
    you are often forced to promote and lay off based on seniority. For workers
    with less seniority and those who believed that promotion should be based
    on hard work and skills, this was definitely a strike against

So who won? Well for a short period of time, no one. The
department was merged and both units were allowed to remain as they were. No
employees joined the union from my shop, although the invitation was open.

What did this mean for me as a manager? Managing a union shop
meant a definite loss in flexibility when it came to handling day-to-day
activities. Things that I could quickly make a management decision on in the
past suddenly required me to “check the contract” to ensure I wasn’t
violating a negotiated agreement. I also found that certain decisions that I
used to make had been “bargained away” by previous management, and I
couldn’t make those decisions any longer. There was also a more strict
definition of what people’s jobs were and, by golly, we don’t do anything that is not in our job description.

Despite the constraints placed on me by the contract, it was
possible to manage successfully and to build a good relationship with the
bargaining unit (which is very important). Would I choose managing a union shop
over a non-union shop? No way. You have much greater freedom as a manager in a
non-union environment. Thus, it’s a double-edged sword—this freedom can be used
to create a great working environment, or it can be abused, which will create
an environment that’s fertile for collective action.

The rest of the story

For those of you who are managing in a non-union environment,
don’t take your flexibility for granted. Do what you can to make your
environment a great place to work, and you will be rewarded with reliable,
productive employees. Neglect to do so, and you could find yourself facing a
much tougher environment to manage in.

For those of you who are unhappy and working in a non-union
environment, you do have options. However, don’t take collective bargaining
lightly. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of unionization.

As for how my situation ended up: Not long after the merger, I
became a layoff casualty. The majority of my employees joined the union, and the
remainder left the organization—either by choice or through layoffs.

Check out the links below if you want to learn more about
unions and labor management:

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