Why unions aren’t your enemy

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Working within a unionised environment certainly provides its own set of unique challenges but HR professionals shouldn’t be so quick to point out the problems – there  are plenty of benefits to be had too, insists one industry lawyer.

“Employers tend to view unions quite adversarially, thinking; ‘They’re only here to advocate in a way that’s not going to be helpful for our business,’ but sometimes unions do have advantages for them,” says Sherridan Cook, partner with Buddle Findlay.

Cook says an oppositional attitude is most often seen when employers are approached by a union for the first time but he claims it’s also present in some workplaces which have had unions for years.

“It’s perhaps not helped by the attitude of unions which is quite adversarial as well - and I’ve had situations with clients where the union seems hell bent on criticising the employer - but I’m sure there would be a better outcome if both parties were working together rather than against one another,” he says.

Instead, Cook is urging employers to consider the positives that a union can bring to the workplace.

“They’re one voice for a number of employees so you can essentially deal with lots of workers at one time by dealing with the union,” he says.

Auckland-based Cook also says employers can use unions to help ensure employee buy-in to major organisational change – if they plan ahead.

“Getting the union involved in processes from an early stage and, if possible, getting them on board with what you do can actually pay dividends when you go about doing it,” he says.

“The last thing unions like is being surprised about something then getting lots of complaints from workers so get them involved early on,” he suggests.

Cook also says savvy employers can use unions as an aid to ensuring compliance under the new Health and Safety at Work Act.

“Unions can – and will – be very helpful in the health and safety space for engaging workers which is now an important aspect of health and safety and compliance,” he says.

The industrial relations expert also encouraged employers to take some time and educate unions about specific business goals.

“There are exceptions to this undoubtedly, but in some industries unions don’t really know what the business is trying to achieve or what it is the business may be able to do for its workers,” says Cook.

“Informing the union about that and educating them a little bit in that space may actually be helpful to you in the long run.”

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