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This article is part of a resource collection for leaders and managers preparing for a unionization process.

At The Management Center, we believe in the importance of unions in social justice movements. We also know that managing in a unionizing context is tricky and high-stakes. Fortunately, you don’t need to figure it out on your own! In this article, we share an approach and four guiding principles to help you manage during a unionization process (note that we are not offering legal advice!).

The Beyond Neutrality approach

We encourage organizations to take the Beyond Neutrality Approach to the unionization process: pro-union, anti-racist, and mission-driven.

  1. Pro-union: Are you pro-workers’ rights but feeling conflicted about being on the management side of unionization? If you’re feeling apprehension, dread, or even anger, these feelings are normal. Accept your feelings, but also accept that the unionization process will happen anyway. Whether staff unionize is outside your sphere of control—it is their legal right to form a union—but managers and leaders can decide how you show up during the process. Showing up pro-union can have a positive impact on how the process plays out (on the flip side, being anti-union will certainly have negative impacts). 
  2. Anti-racist: Use the unionization process to advance your organization’s racial justice and equity priorities. This is especially important because, for all of the good that organized labor has done, there is also a history of racism and other forms of oppression within the American Labor Movement. To prevent the disproportionate negative impact the unionization process can have on marginalized leaders and staff, take steps to center the experiences of BIPOC and marginalized staff, leaders, and experts in each phase of the process.
  3. Mission-driven: Keep the organization’s mission and vision at the forefront. While the unionization process does require time and resources in the short term, it has the potential to strengthen your organization and better support the organization’s goals in the long term.

A note on language: At TMC, we use terms like “manager” or “management” and “supervisor” or “supervision” interchangeably. In a union context, these terms often have legal importance and bearing on who is represented by a union and who is considered Management. Each collective bargaining agreement is different, so if you’re not sure about your designation, check with HR. In this article, the term “managers” refers to people with staff management responsibilities, and “management” is the practice, duty, and balance associated with supervising staff.

Guiding principles for managers

The following are four guiding principles for managing during a unionization process.

1. Act from a grounded place

As we mentioned before, it’s normal to feel conflicted during a unionization process. It’s okay if you don’t feel great. When staff decide to unionize, it can feel like an indictment of an organization’s leadership and management (and let’s be real—sometimes it is), and it’s normal to feel defensive. If you’re a manager—and especially if you’re a senior leader—find a way to process your emotions so you can respond, supervise, and support your teams from a steady place. Staff unionize to be heard, and you will need to be grounded to listen well and not take it too personally (especially when you receive feedback that is personalized). Use your personal grounding practices and support your team to build a sense of purpose, agency, and connection.

2. Own your power

One of the hardest parts of the unionization process is navigating your power and authority as a manager. Even outside of unionization, this can be hard for managers. Many of us experience marginalization, too, and work to fix harmful power imbalances; so it can be uncomfortable to be the one holding power. That discomfort leads some managers to shy away from exercising authority. 

Additionally, unionization creates some limits on the authority managers can exercise. Managers must learn and adopt new processes to transition to managing in unionized settings. Uncertainty about what’s allowed and the fear of messing up often creates a “freeze” response, leading managers to simply do nothing. 

Two things are true: 

  1. Managers have positional power that we must use responsibly. 
  2. We are responsible for getting the work done.

Regardless of your feelings about power or the uncertainties you face, doing nothing is not a viable option. In fact, inaction will impact your team, too. The Management Center’s definition of effective management calls on managers to understand where we have power (and where we don’t), exercise it for the good of the work, and consider our impact on the lives and livelihoods of the people we manage. 

A note for BIPOC managers and/or leaders with multiple marginalized identities: “Owning your power” can feel more complicated if you hold multiple marginalized identities. In a 2022-23 study, Beyond Neutrality found that the potential for harm increased dramatically when the pressure tactics associated with unionization intersected with race, gender, and equity dynamics. When the situation is especially tense, it is even more important for BIPOC managers to go back to the first guiding principle and stay grounded, as BIPOC managers are less likely to receive grace or leniency than their white counterparts when they act from a reactive place. And, it is even more important for BIPOC managers to focus on their sphere of control and treat pushback or negative feedback as data. You can always choose what to do with feedback (and yes, sometimes that means ignoring it).

3. Know your role

When you know your role as a manager in a unionization process, it’s easier to own your power. 

When it comes to unions, here are some general dos and don’ts for managers:

  • Do: Offer broad support for unions and unionization in general
  • Do: Show compassion for your staff and support reprioritization as needed
  • Don’t: Engage staff in conversations about the union or bargaining

While managers can (and should!) express broad support for the union and the process of collective bargaining, they cannot discuss specifics about the union or bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act defines which employees can form a community of interest and become a bargaining unit, as well as which staff members are excluded from the bargaining unit because they are managers, supervisors, or employees with a confidential designation. Staff members who are excluded from the union are “management’s agents” under the law, which means that managers can support staff through tension that may arise during negotiations, but should not discuss the union or the contents of bargaining proposals. If staff come to you to discuss bargaining details, encourage them to engage with a union representative or their colleagues in the union. Try this boundary-setting language from Beyond Neutrality: 

“I believe in collective bargaining. I also want to set a clear boundary that, as management staff, I will not influence you or get involved. It sounds like you have important questions. These are good questions to bring to your colleagues in the union or a union representative.”

You may even consider updating your role expectations to reflect any changes—including mindsets and approaches—to your supervisory role during and after the unionization process.

To learn more about specific dos and don’ts, check out Beyond Neutrality’s Management Communication About the Union resource, as well as Supervising in a Union Environment.

4. (Re)commit to strong management practices 

A three-strand braid with the words “effective management” written across it. Each strand has one word written on it: “equitable,” “sustainable,” and “results-driven.”

Last, but not least, focus on the fundamentals of good management. Management is a duty, practice, and balance, and effective managers always keep an eye toward equity, sustainability, and results. Continue regular check-ins, delegate clearly, use a conspire and align approach, and give helpful feedback. Our managing managers checklist provides a rundown on the key duties for managing effectively. 

Just remember, the unionization process is not a good time to make sudden or dramatic changes to your management style. A sudden improvement in management practices at the prospect of unionization has been a notorious union-busting tactic historically, and will likely be perceived as disingenuous. Plus, implementing practices related to potential disciplinary action—like performance evaluations or delivering feedback—can be viewed as retaliation if these aren’t already normal organizational practices. 

Oh &$%*: What if I (or members of my team) haven’t been practicing effective management? 

Unionization can be a wake-up call to take a close look at our management practices. If you (or someone you supervise) haven’t been nailing management basics, own it: have a frank conversation with your supervisor or HR about areas where you could improve and ask what’s possible given the context. 

If you want to up your management game, don’t immediately jump to accountability practices—focus on where you can better support your staff. If you’re not sure, ask them: “What are ways I could better support you as a manager?”

Other resources

This article (and our other unionization tools) was created in partnership with our friends at Beyond Neutrality. The Management Center’s unionization collection is a work in progress. Check back periodically for more resources!

Resources for managers and leaders going through a unionization process:

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