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Jamie Gruman

How to Lead Change in a Unionized Environment

I met Jamie Gruman, Associate Professor of
Organizational Behaviour, University of Guelph last week for coffee. We talked about
current trends in change management and where our field is headed.
Jamie mentioned that his Leadership of
Organizational Change Masters program class was discussing how to lead change within
a unionized environment. We thought this would make a good blog post.
 I worked within a unionized environment at Cadbury
in Canada. Management and the union had good relations and I don’t recall any
union-specific challenges to the merger and cultural initiatives we
I remember a warehouse manager saying he
preferred to work with unions because the rules of engagement are clear and in
writing. He also said that you get the union you deserve, meaning that good
relationships breed good partnerships (and vice versa).
Union leadership is a stakeholder group just like
all others that are impacted by change and have influence over the
direction, evaluation and ultimately the success of it. You need to engage and
motivate these key players as you would anyone else. This will ensure they
visibly support the change and drive the behaviours that enable it, demonstrating
them to their membership. 
The first thing to do is assess how the change will
impact union leadership and what role you need them to play:
  •         How will they (and their membership)
  •         How will they lose?
  •         What support do you need
    from them?
  •         How motivated will they be
    to support the change?
  •         What actions do you need to take to get
    them on side?

Here are some tips on how to align union leadership
with your change initiative:
  • Meet with them prior to communicating
    the change to explain:
    • Why
      the change is necessary for the long-term health of the organization. This is
      the common purpose you will work toward.
    • What other
      options were considered
    • Why it is
    • What it
      will do
    • What needs
      to change and what will stay the same for the change to be successful
    • How people
      will be involved in the planning and transition phases
    • What
      support (training, coaching, etc.) will be provided
    • What will
      happen and when
  • Ask for feedback
  • Discuss the role(s) that union
    leadership will play in the change. It needs to be an important, visible and
    active one
  • Commit to update meetings at key points
    of the transition plan

An excellent example of management and union
partnership through change was in 1984 when Toyota and General Motors created a
joint venture called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) that transformed an ailing GM factory in Fremont, California, into a highly
efficient producer of cars.
Within one year, the ailing plant went from GM’s
worst-quality producer to its highest. Labour relations followed a similar
transformation. Employees and their union embraced the Toyota production system
built on mutual trust and empowerment. Absenteeism dropped from 20% to
So how do you lead change in a unionized
environment? The same way you do in a non-unionized one except for the
acknowledgement, engagement and motivation of another key stakeholder that can influence
the success of the change. This is an important step
that is sometimes missed.

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