The objective of this paper is to build further on our understanding of union effects by examining what unions do to managerial practice in the workplace. Unions can be an instrument of social change but even when they play a larger role in society, their core activity remains focused at the workplace. Their principal engagement is with management though their actions may extend to lobbying, politics, and the community at both local and international levels. Therefore, in any consideration of the question, what do unions do to the workplace, it is important to examine the impact of unions on management in general and on human resource management (HRM), in particular. The main focus for Freeman and Medoff, in their 1984 book, What Do Unions Do, (hereafter F-M) was not on this question but rather on union effects on outcomes such as productivity. Their findings have been influential in advancing our knowledge of union impact on organizational outcomes. They offer a number of explanations for their finding of a positive union effect on productivity. Apart from lower quit rates, three other possible explanations are suggested: seniority-based rewards, better job production standards (and better management accountability in general), and more employer-employee communications (pp. 14-15). The latter two of these explanations concern managerial practice but were not directly investigated in the study. This paper fills a gap in research by examining empirical support (or lack thereof) accumulated since the early 1980s, for some of these and other explanations for a positive union effect on management practice at the workplace level.
Citing a landmark study by Slichter, Healy and Livernash (1960) (hereafter, SHL), F-M argue that unions can improve efficiency by “putting pressure on management to tighten jobproduction standards and accountability in order to preserve profits in the face of higher wages” (p.15). The SHL study put the issue of union impact on management practice in focus by examining an exhaustive range of management policies in the workplace such as hours of work, wage incentives, subcontracting, promotions and discipline, to name only a few of them . SHL found that unions can have both positive and negative effects on management and hence on efficiency. Among the positive effects of unions, SHL point to better management, a better balance between employer and employee interests, and better communications. Although SHL did not formally define the term themselves, their findings of a positive union effect has been referred to as the “shock effect” of unions on managementi.
Even though the SHL study reported both positive and negative union effects on managerial practice, it is most often cited, only for unions’ positive effect on efficiency. Although some efficiencies result from the union exercising its voice role, the SHL study cites numerous other examples to show that union voice does not always contribute positively to productivity. In many instances, union actions and policies have the effect of restraining productivity or efficiency. Similarly, it can be argued that the monopoly face of unions can also contribute to restraining as well as enhancing efficiency. Although the monopoly face is generally associated with negative outcomes for management, some monopolistic policies of the unions can also generate efficiencies for management. Thus, the relationship of union policies to efficiency, whether it be the voice or monopoly face, is a complex one.
To further develop our understanding of union effects, it is important to examine empirical evidence accumulated since the publication of F-M on union effects on management practice. Studies conducted since the early 1980s allow us to examine union effects on a range of workplace 3
and HRM policies. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to re-visit the impact of unions on managerial practice in HRM and related workplace practices. More...