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Change Management in Unionized Environments

Even in the best of circumstances and with the strongest of leaderships, Change Management remains a very challenging endeavor. But in unionized environments, this challenge increases many folds, because:  

* Most of the agents (i.e. employees) expected to carry out the change are under the influence of and take direction from unions which most often are not cooperating, 

* Union rules often favour and strive to enforce status quo and seniority preference, both of which are direct obstacles to Change, 

* To win unions over, a long painstaking courtship and lobbying is often required. Indeed, unions' decision making process is very democratic, and requires widespread member consultation and even voting, 

* Unions are often disliked (or at the very least viewed with suspicion) by Management. Too obvious efforts to placate them and win them over is therefore likely to antagonize Management.   

So what should the program/initiative manager do?   

- Ignore Unions and try to run them over using the power and authority of the chain of command (Management hierarchy)? This would certainly seal the fate of the change initiative and guarantee its failure, as Resistance to Change will harden, fueled and organized by unions.   .

- Invite unions in and give them a permanent seat at the steering committee? Not only would Management not like it, but unions themselves could make the program 's governance unworkable by insisting on the values of seniority preeminence and status quo preservation.   

Over the years, I have found the following principles and practices to work best:   

1- Never ignore unions, and never attempt to isolate them or "railroad" them using the power of the chain of command (Management hierarchy)   

 2- involve unions as early as possible and consider them part of the overall leadership. But they must be made to have some "skin in the game" and not left to retreat on the sidelines, in a dogmatic and confrontational attitude towards Management.   

To achieve this, It is very effective to include some union leaders in the program/initiative's leadership team with responsibility for managing stakeholders, and working out compromises and solutions to conflicting requirements. They also prove to be very effective in communicating with and explaining the program's decisions and choices to the rest of the organization. Finally, they are very good at gathering feedback from the organization, as they always have their finger on its pulse, are very aware of the prevailing mood among workers and sense very early on what the real issues are and where Resistance is starting to develop.   

To conclude, unions need not be feared and considered from the onset impediments to change. When involved properly in the process, they are a very valuable asset to any change initiative. Their intimate knowledge of the front line (or the shop floor in a manufacturing environment), combined with their close "proximity" to average workers (i.e. the regular "Joe" in the organization)  can be a major contributing factor to the initiative's success.

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