By: Jane Mc Niven, J.D

In the movie “Norma Rae”, the lead character Norma Rae, portrayed by Sallie Field, is struggling to unionize a southern textile plant strife with intolerable working conditions. The impact of Sallie Field holding the “UNION” sign above her head while working on the noisy manufacturing floor was felt among her coworkers. This led to the dramatic ending in which the workers joined the textile union and the plant was unionized. What happens after the contract is implemented and a strong, highly organized union workforce develops?Norma Rae

Imagine, if you will, a company with a union workforce, a strong union contract, and very little managerial knowledge of the contract affecting the operation of the company. Unfortunately, this is all too common a scenario in today’s business world. With the current steep decline in the economy, large reductions in force have resulted in supervisors doing the work formerly accomplished by two or three others. More often than not, the push for production during lean times does not allow for in-depth training of the managerial staff.

What does the lack of knowledge of the nuances of the contract have upon the company? Unfortunately, the results can be financially devastating. An untrained supervisor, who permits a union employee to perform tasks not covered in the contract, is placing the company at risk for major litigation. Possible complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, together with costly legal hearings, can result from issues as simple as complaints of favoritism, or allowing non-union personnel to work a designated “union only” job position. It is possible that an untrained manager might find that he is unable to discipline or terminate a union employee, due to not knowing the procedural steps set forth in the union contract. Thus, the result is that the manager becomes ineffective and unable to protect the best interests of the company during a time of greatest vulnerability to bankruptcy. Without a well trained manager to perform as a true leader, a situation develops where you have “the inmates running the asylum”.

How can a company, prevent, rather than solve these issues? First, a member of the staff must be formally trained in legal matters. The individual must have a legal background to interpret contracts and ascertain how they affect the company and the workforce. The grievance and arbitration processes must be compatible with the size of the workforce and the supervisory staff. The nature of the work must be considered, that is, is it high risk requiring special rules, or routine, where no special safety matters must be considered. Second, the legal expert must be qualified to teach company supervisors and staff the necessary aspects of the union contract which they have to know to effectively and efficiently manage the workforce under their control. This training must be thorough and easily understood by supervisors and managers of varied background and educational levels.

It has been observed that many unions have established training programs for their committees and shop stewards. It has also been observed that many corporations have NOT done likewise for their management staff. Training programs of contract management requirements are essential for the operational success of the company leadership team and ultimately, the success of the company. A one-shot exposure is not adequate. There must be a continuing education program. If possible, a Labor Relations person on the supervisory staff should participate in conducting investigations of alleged contract violations and brief appropriate personnel concerning the resolution of these matters.

There is no doubt that a poor management staff will adversely affect the profitability of a company. The morale of the managers has an impact on the employees in day to day operations and this too, can hurt if relations are strained. A great manager spawns a great workforce and enhances the company bottom line. Training can be a key to company success.