How to Lead Change in a Unionized Environment

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 implemented.

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) benefit?
  •         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 achievable
    • 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 2%. 

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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