What do you know about being management in a union environment?
June 22, 2013 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I may, in the future, have the opportunity to move to a management role in a union environment at a state university. Some state universities have professional unions and some have service employee unions. Do you have experience working or managing in an environment like this? How is it different from working in a non-union academic environment? If I were to make a move like this, how could I be the best manager for both union and non-union people possible?
posted by eleanna to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
These are questions which your supervisor and HR will advise you on.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:21 PM on June 22, 2013

I worked on staff for an academic union. I think it's very hard to generalize. How our members were treated very much depended on what part of the university they worked for. The best I can say is take the time to actually read the contract the union has negotiated for the workers under your supervision. The caveat being that if local traditions differ from your reading of the contract then you are probably not going to be in a position to impose your point of view. The real flash-points were, of course, when the university attempted to fire people. Basically, be aware that the people you manage are working on a contract which may stipulate rules *you* have to follow.

If you are already working in academia then you know that academic politics can be crazy and toxic. So, adding in union politics to the mix doesn't change this. A lot depends on the culture of the part of university you would be working in.

These are questions which your supervisor and HR will advise you on.

posted by ennui.bz at 4:42 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not looking for legal issues--those I figure that I will get advised on--but more sort of...things to be aware of or wouldn't know to ask about in deciding whether to take such a job.
posted by eleanna at 4:47 PM on June 22, 2013

The university where I work has both professional and service unions (we have 6 or 7 unions altogether). I'm not management, but in my experience some people are hyperaware of the union, know their contact backward and forward, and call out management right away if they're violating the contract (or in danger of violating the contract). These are not necessarily the people who will file grievances on anything that seems remotely grievable and make managers suspicious of anyone who mentions the union.

We are also allowed to pay an agency fee instead of union dues if we don't want to be full members of the union. The agency fee members I've known are not usually as up to date on union stuff and have ranged from union haters to people who just don't want to pay the full dues.

The best managers I've had have been familiar with the contracts for their staff (our HR department has them all posted online, which is handy) and have encouraged their staff to be familiar with them as well. It is much easier to do the research and avoid violating the contract than for either side to deal with it afterward (a manager who is constantly taking back policy changes because they didn't check the contract first is not exactly great for morale).

I have also worked at a non-unionized institution and I much prefer the union shop. I have had terrible managers at both places and at the non-union school I felt quite powerless and ended up quitting because I couldn't find a way to deal with my boss. At my current institution I was able to get support from the union to deal with a manager who was treating me poorly until I was able to find another position within the university.

I'm not sure if that was the kind of thing you're looking for - maybe if you let us know any specific concerns you have, like are you afraid that a union shop will be too constricting and not let you run things the way you want to? Do you want to know if union members will constantly quote their collective bargaining agreement at you? If you like to be the absolute last word on everything, managing unionized workers will be frustrating. My university is rather large and individual departments have widely different cultures around this stuff, too, which makes it even more difficult to generalize.
posted by camyram at 6:36 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK, and not in an academic environment, but when I was a manager in a unionised workplace I found it most beneficial to join the union. As a manager you're still an employee, and might need your own representation as such one day. Managing a unionised workforce should be no different to managing anyone else - you provide supervision and guidance and, if necessary, follow the stated procedures for grievances or disciplinary actions. If you find yourself on the management side against a union rep in a dispute, make sure your i's are dotted and your t's are crossed and you have followed those procedures to the letter, cos they will have your arse if you haven't and you've wasted everybody's time.

I no longer work in that workplace, but I'm still a member of the union. If I need them they'll be there for me and they have great benefits and discounts for members. Plus, as an old lefty, I recognise the overall good to society brought about by the labour movement, and am glad to contribute. The way I see it, even if I personally never need their assistance in a dispute, someone else, with greater needs than I, will, and I'm happy to subsidise that.
posted by goo at 7:54 PM on June 22, 2013

I think I mostly just feel like I don't know what to ask about that aspect to know the lay of the land. I know academia well enough to know what questions to know to know if that's a good fit. Academia's already pretty bureaucratic. I'm just not sure if this changes things enough that I should have another set of questions ready to ask and if people have tips (like the ones people have already given that are helpful!) on sandtraps to be aware of and how to be a good manager when you (potentially) have far less discretion in rewarding or managing people.
posted by eleanna at 8:29 PM on June 22, 2013

Will this be your first management role? Or do you have experience managing people in a different environment?
posted by goo at 9:32 PM on June 22, 2013

I have a couple of years of experience managing in an academic environment.
posted by eleanna at 10:19 PM on June 22, 2013

Well, if you have management experience I think it's going to be a matter of ensuring you know your and the employees' contracts inside out, as well as the university's employment policies and procedures, and working within them (to the letter). In my field and in my jurisdiction the union signs off on all top-level employment policies and procedures, and you need to make sure you follow them to the letter unless you want to end up answering to a tribunal (and I speak from experience here, ugh).
posted by goo at 11:33 PM on June 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Know the contracts and know how to deal with HR processes. Promoting and reclassifying people can and is painful. A good manager will know the position description of the staff members, know what the staffer actually does, helps that staffer be properly trained and remunerated. Another thing is knowing how to go about letting your deadwood go. It can and is a slog. The contract will clearly show what absolute steps need to be taken. Now some managers bitch about how they can't fire people but frankly, the contract simply stops people from being abusive and rash in that area e.g., warnings and paper trail. Now HR may try to convince you to keep staffing cost low by never promoting, reclassifying or flabby ass attempts at training but seriously, that is a losing game because your staff will get burnt out, resentful and leave because it is the only way to get a promotion or at least some recognition for work. Put it this way, HR is not directly involved in making you look good or be more productive so take their pressure and advice cautiously. Also, don't be their bitch, which means Know HR policies too from the central office site and not just what the hr rep says. I have seen what a dysfunctional hr group can do, including not fully informing staff, faculty and admin of policies and procedures.
posted by jadepearl at 4:51 AM on June 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

You MUST research and understand the career path and incentives which are available to the unionized employees under your supervision, because that is the key knowledge in managing them. Don't focus on the written contract so much as the actual lived experience of the office(s) for which you'll have authority.

Some seats by their nature or the practice of the institution have literally nothing to look forward to but cost of living increases. Other seats are eligible for performance-based bonuses and are on a "track" which can lead to merit-based promotions to supervisory, management or even executive positions. Many seats fall in between: little direct promotional opportunity, but plentiful opportunity for what I like to call "forty-five degree" moves (as opposed to lateral); the Economics department secretary has no where directly to go up, but if she's done a good job and is well liked will have a big edge when the office manager job for the Dean of Social Sciences is listed.

(I spent 1.5 years between college and law school working in junior administrative roles at my large public college and it's quite striking the extent to which some of people I worked with are in essentially the same job many years later, and others are in pretty stratospherically high ranked jobs given their fairly modest academic, etc., credentials.)

Demonstrate your understanding of the above, and your intention to reward high performing employees with your support for any move they might wish to make or bonus for which they might be eligible.

Also, if and when it is appropriate, show that you know, and are willing to use, the disciplinary process through and including termination. Because of the need to service students and faculty, who are more vocal and powerful than voters (whether or not they should be) you will never find a university which chokes off discipline to the extent you can find in other government jobs. Managers who don't use those tools mainly do so out of laziness or apathy, not because they aren't available to them.
posted by MattD at 8:27 AM on June 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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