Many industries rely heavily on union labor, and a healthy relationship with those unions can play a vital role in the success or failure of an enterprise. But when that relationship becomes dysfunctional, more than just business can suffer: supervisory morale and productivity relations can plummet. One heavily unionized company – with more than 30 separate collective bargaining agreements with multiple unions – asked the lawyers at Hirschfeld Kraemer to come up with a solution.

Turning Unions into Partners, not Adversaries

Before retaining our firm, this company was inundated with grievances and lawsuits, most of which lacked any merit. However, the company had in most cases concluded that it was easier and cheaper to settle them quickly, regardless of merit. And when the cases did go to trial or arbitration, they’d often lose because they weren’t willing to commit the necessary resources to defend these cases because of their perception that the costs outweighed the potential liability. This strategy backfired: employees regularly ignored their supervisors, and the unions routinely challenged management decisions, knowing that the company lacked the backbone to stand up to these provocations.

Changing the Message

We advised this company to completely change its philosophy. We warned management that our approach would be costly in the short run but would pay great dividends if they stayed the course. Our new message to the unions was simple: if we’ve done something wrong, we will fix it. But if we have done the right thing and the complaints lack merit, we’ll stick to our guns and fight. Our theory was that this message would ultimately change these unions’ approach to working with management and would gain their respect. To accomplish these objectives, we needed to implement a two-part strategy. First, we needed to carefully review the company’s policies and practices to ensure they complied with the law and applicable union contracts. Second, we needed to aggressively defend managements’ decisions before arbitrators and courts regardless of the relationship between the defense costs and the potential downside if we lost.

Our client’s patience and perseverance paid off; we won 17 cases in a row, and the union grievances and complaints subsided. Our actions didn’t result in the elimination of all controversies. But the end result was that the unions only pursued those few matters that had a legitimate basis, and there was a new-found respect by those unions for management. This ultimately resulted in enhanced management morale and a more effective working relationship with those unions.