APU Business Careers Careers & Learning Original

The Dynamics of Union and Employer Relations in the US (Part X)

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

(Note: This article contains content adapted from lesson material written for APUS classes.)

This is the final article in a 10-part series on the dynamics of union and employer relations in the United States.

In the previous part, we examined how arbitration is often used to settle disputes between employers and unions over collective bargaining agreements. In this final part, we’ll look at the unique characteristics of unions in the public sector and briefly summarize the landscape of unions outside the United States.

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Unions in the Public Sector

Public-sector employees comprise a wide variety of occupations at both the state and federal levels; they include police, fire, teachers, the military, lawyers, accountants and many others. Many of the dynamics of union representation for public employees are similar to those of the private sector, but there are some very important distinctions. Primary among them is a law making it illegal for federal workers to strike.

In addition, bargaining authority for public-sector employees is restricted in many cases, either by executive order or by law. This is to ensure the continued efficient operation of governmental services, notwithstanding changes in their resources such as budgets and staffing.

Another big distinction lies in remedial procedures available to disputants under union contracts. In the public sector, “impasse resolution procedures” are codified and commonly include arbitration. “Final offer selection arbitration” is often preferred for efficiency’s sake.

However, strikes by public employees are prohibited in many states to ensure societal stability. If public employees were permitted to shut down the government over labor disputes, this shutdown could obviously present a significant danger to the public.

Each state has its own prescriptions for public sector unionization, which vary significantly from state to state. Currently, there is a strong political divide in the United States over organized labor. The Democratic Party’s public policy standpoint strongly supports unions, and in turn is supported financially by most of the biggest unions in America.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, tends to make policy that lessens union power. And although consequently Republican lawmakers receive little financial support from unions, big corporations that have strong interests in crushing unions usually compensate for the difference and then some.

International Unions Are in Various States of Evolution around the World

Organized labor efforts are in various states of evolution around the world from Europe to Asia to more remote parts. While a comprehensive review would far exceed the scope of this article, here are some of the current prevalent themes in the unionization arena outside the United States.

Work Councils

In some European countries such as England, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden and elsewhere, work councils perform some of the tasks that unions do in America. One of the biggest distinctions is that these work councils usually have representation on executive leadership teams; that is, a seat on a board of directors. As a result of this more intimate relationship between employee representation and management, cooperation between the two sides is often better than in the United States.

Multiple Union Representation and Contract Deliberations

In parts of Europe, it is permissible for employees to be represented by more than one union simultaneously. Additionally, European Union (EU) countries do not distinguish between mandatory and permissive bargaining issues as the U.S. does, so this is not an area of contention in negotiations.

Asian Unionization Efforts

In many Asian countries, particularly communist models such as China and North Korea, efforts to organize labor are either outlawed, suppressed, or heavily controlled by the government.

Strike Frequency and Duration

Strikes typically are shorter in duration abroad than they are in the United States. But in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France and Finland, strikes are more frequent than in the U.S.

Unionization Effects on Wages

In European countries, wages are generally not influenced by unionization as drastically as they are in the U.S. This is obviously good, but unions should be careful not to create such a burdensome presence that they stifle investment.

Union and Employer Relationships Bear Careful Study

There is much to know about the dynamics in the workplace between unions and employers. Union-employer relations do not have to be hostile, but cooperation requires understanding. With this in mind, managers, human resource professionals, union leaders, negotiators and employment attorneys would all be wise to carefully study the key points of these relationships so as to make smart decisions in future labor-management interactions.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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