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Working With the “Non-Union” Union

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
August 29, 2022

If you mention “union” to someone, they tend to have clear thoughts on them, even if lacking experience as a union member or working within a unionized environment. Much of their incomplete knowledge concerns private sector labor organizations working with a negotiated contract; a knowledge acquired through popular media. This limited knowledge of unions might make public sector leaders hesitant or fearful of working with them. In turn, this might contribute to an inability to achieve the potential benefits to be garnered through the collaborative efforts of management and workers.

Worker’s Associations

The pre-curser of unions are worker’s associations. In the United States, they began to emerge in the 19th century. Workers banded together in the hopes their collective voices might bear more weight when raising concerns with management. These concerns focused on compensation, benefits and working conditions. Working conditions included topics such as safety, scheduling and discipline. We continue to see worker’s associations today. Modern unions are initially created as non-profit associations based upon state law, providing them the formal structure to become a union if they wish, or to seek membership in a national or international union. Worker’s associations do not have the right of collective bargaining. Their efficacy is premised on the relationships they might build with management to communicate employee concerns, resolving issues in an informal manner.

The Union

In the public sector, the difference between an association and a union is largely based upon relevant state and federal laws related to lawful and unlawful labor practices of both unions and management. The key practical differences between a union and an association are that a union possesses the ability to negotiate a contract and have binding arbitration by an external party for labor-management disputes. Management is obligated to meet and confer with union officials periodically. Outside of areas designated as management rights by contract or law, management must often negotiate changes to organizational workplace practices.

Laws related to unions vary greatly between states, and the laws differ for public and private sector unions. Some states permit public employees to unionize; others do not. Some permit some public employees to unionize; but not all. It is not uncommon to see prohibitions on public sector unions for teachers or public safety employees. Public sector unions may be legally barred from engaging in strikes or slowdowns. In states where public sector unions are permitted, they may negotiate a contract similar in nature to that of a private sector union. Many public-sector managers dislike this, and may be outright frustrated and disgusted by this arrangement. Relationships may be limited, tense and dysfunctional.

The “Non-union Union”

A “non-union union” is a labor organization established as a non-profit based upon state law, which has been chartered as a member organization of a national or international union, but is not recognized as a union based upon state law or local policy. They may retain the term association in their name, but have a union local number (example, Acme Employee’s Association, ABC Local #123). In such circumstances, a common error is to dismiss them as unimportant—“they are only an association.” However, this disregards the powerful influence a local might have in terms of legislative, media, legal and financial clout. Ignoring this might contribute to intemperate decisions and unfortunate consequences should issues escalate. It also ignores the fundamental reasons worker’s associations and unions developed dysfunctional relationships between labor and management. If these relationships are ignored, leaders may never attain the type of committed, engaged workforce needed to provide high quality services to the community.

Benefits of Working with Associations and Non-union Unions

Throughout most of this argument, the term management was used deliberately. When the labor movement began, it was workers versus management. Management is the term used in labor legislation. However, the shift to the term leader at the close of the previous section was intentional. Management and leadership overlap in many areas, but they are distinctly different. Management is about formal power, while leadership is about informal influence.

For decades, we have increasingly seen arguments for leadership to partner with employees, engaging collaboratively for the benefit of everyone. If an association or union emerges, it is usually indicative of a dysfunctional relationship between organizational leadership and the employees, hindering the ability to collaborate effectively. Working with employee organizations meaningfully through formal or informal processes might yield benefits such as greater engagement, higher quality services and a healthier organizational culture. Avoiding meaningful discussions as a power play is entirely counterproductive.

Ignoring associations and non-union unions because they lack formal power serves no one. Ignoring employee organizations created because of dysfunctional relations between employees and the organization will only make relationships worsen. Public sector leaders should confer with corporate council and community leadership to ensure they do not cross any legal or policy boundaries within their community, but limiting or barring open communications between leaders and employees and not actively seeking means to engage with the workforce will lead to sub-optimal outcomes for all, including those we serve.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctor Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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