Coexisting with the Unions

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant
Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the second in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

The first time I had to supervise union employees was when I became an Assistant County Public Works Director. I took the job shortly after both the city and the county had experienced a public employee strike. Every time we tried to hire or promote someone we got a union grievance saying that we had hired or promoted the wrong person. It was really just a part of the union's strategy to harass management and vent some anger that they still had after the strike.

When I got my first grievance like this I went out to one of the job sites to meet with the union president. We sat in the tall grass and resolved everything. When I went back to tell my boss that the grievance was settled I told him about the discussion I had in the tall grass. I said that the more we discussed things the more I wondered if I was running my division or if the union was running it. Actually, I said, "I was kind of leaning toward the notion that they were running it."

Since then I've had a lot more experience dealing with unions and I've come to some conclusions that might be helpful to someone who's trying to figure this all out. First of all, management should treat its employees in a way that results in their not needing a union. In other words, treat people fairly and with respect and as part of the team.

Second, be aware that treating people as I've described doesn't mean you'll be free of union trouble. You'll still probably have grievances and labor disputes but you'll be able to treat those difficulties like they're just about business because you know you're trying to do the right thing for your employees.

The third thing to remember is that all general statements are wrong, including this one. Now that we've got that out the way, what do you really need to know? You need to know that no matter how hard you try to work closely with your union representatives, when push comes to shove they have a responsibility to represent their members. And they'll represent them even if they're wrong. Some unions just do this and pretend that their member isn't wrong and other unions will actually try to find a result that gives the member a dignified way to recognize a mistake and improve. I've been blessed through most of my career with union reps who didn't take this responsibility for representation to extremes. The good news is that this only comes up when you discipline someone. If you did the discipline for the right reason and in the right way you won't have any problems and you'll just take the grievance process by the numbers and move on.

It's always good to have a personal relationship with your union reps that is established before any disagreements occur. I'm not suggesting that you be buddies but I am suggesting that you have a relationship based on mutual respect and with a clear understanding of what you're both trying to accomplish. You should be looking for common goals so that you have an area of agreement to start from whenever something goes wrong.

The opposite approach can be disastrous. Fighting the union over something you think you need to manage better only seems to work if you have all the power anyway. If you have all the power why are you fighting? I once watched a documentary about the Philadelphia school system when they had a superintendent who had some great ideas for improving their schools. Someone advised him to fight the union over the right to fire teachers. He did and he lost and nobody won. The documentary interviewed the superintendent and teachers and union officials. The teachers always talked about the kids and the superintendent always talked about the kids and the union official always talked about protecting teachers. I can't help but think that they should have all been talking about what was best for the kids. They had common ground but they either didn't see it or chose to ignore it.

I believe that most people get into public service because they want to improve the world and make a difference. That should give us some common ground to work with. I've been accused of being too optimistic at times. What I've just said could fall into that category. But I'm not suggesting that I have any miraculous cure for the flaws of human nature.

One of those flaws is that we all have some guilt about something. We also have varying degrees of control over our respective lives. I always thought that I treated the people who worked for me fairly but that doesn't mean that some of them weren't still living in fear that they might mess up sometimes. I know some of them were thankful that they had a union to protect them. That isn't the end of the world even if I might have found it mildly insulting.

Union leaders who know they don't have much to offer their members for their dues, however, can take this core fear and manipulate it for their own purposes. This kind of union leader will use every opportunity to describe any disagreement with management as another example of management's unfair practice of trying to catch employees doing something wrong. You may not be able to do much more than refute this statement at every opportunity but you should probably consider doing more. You may want to look at how your managers are treating discipline of their employees to make sure that they are actually trying to catch people doing something right and only resorting to discipline when it's needed.

I still think that the majority of union officials are trying to represent their members fairly. Some are even better than that. I'm currently working with a union official who sees problems brewing before they reach the boiling point and works with management to resolve things in a spirit of cooperation. He is able to suggest things we could do to be better managers because he sees it as to his advantage for his members to have fewer problems. He's hardly a pawn of management and he's always a strong advocate for his members. He's more than that, however, and that is what makes him a joy to work with. You should be so lucky.

All of life is about relationships. That's why I haven't talked about things like labor negotiations, grievance processes and arbitration. What I have talked about is the relationship that you need to establish with your union. But one size doesn't fit all. The chart shows the variation and, I hope, the relative distribution of the types of union officials you might run into.

  • The "Good" union officials are like the one that I just described who wants to help you manage your workforce better. Nurture that relationship but don't take it for granted and don't use it to get an edge on the union.

  • The "Not So Bad" union officials are what most of us deal with on a routine basis. They want to represent their employees and some are better than others. It's with these folks that you can accomplish the most by finding common ground and treating each other with mutual respect. And also, we need to remember that there will be times when we won't agree and so we need to keep those disagreements on a businesslike plane.

  • The "Ugly" union official is the one who will lie and cheat and you hope eventually get found out by the membership or the police. All you can do is adhere to your basic principles and treat your union and non-union employees with respect and help them be all they can be. You can't change a jerk so don't waste your time. What you can do, however, is not lower yourself to the jerk's level and start mimicking his behavior. This is the toughest situation to deal with and could make you think that life's too short to stay where the jerks have the power.

That last sentence isn't the most positive way to end an article so let me add that the chart is the way I think it really is and most of our interactions with union officials are not so bad.

John Ostrowski is a former member of the Engineering and Technology Technical Committee. He can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Personnel Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment