Developing a working relationship with individual supervisors or managers can be key to getting problems resolved.
Working relationships involve respect for people and process. They are not the same as cosy relationships with management, and they are a far cry from hostile relationships. We’ve probably all seen examples of each.
A cosy relationship with management is one where it can be hard to tell the difference between the union and management – the relationship becomes too close for the union to be able to effectively stand up for the interests of workers.
It’s our job to keep workers’ interests our top priority, and not get seduced by the idea that ‘we’re all in it together’ or that ‘when it comes to health and safety, we all have the same goal’, ‘we’re family’, etc., etc. Management’s profit motive (or adherence to the bottom-line) will always come into the equation at some point – whether we work in the private sector or the public sector, for a large employer or a small family business. It’s fine to get along with management on a personal basis – it’s not fine to let your relationship with management get in your way of representing workers’ interests.
The opposite of cosy is hostile. In some workplaces management takes on the union and our workplace representatives on every single issue – there are constant battles – they might take the form of a paper war, or open hostility. Allowing ourselves to get caught up in every battle risks our credibility with members.
There’s no question that building working relationships in environments where there is a long history of hostility, or where supervisors have really abrasive personalities, is really hard work. Where it’s an individual supervisor and we’ve done our best at civility, we may need to get creative. Where it’s a more generally hostile environment we may need to seek out supervisors with whom there’s at least a chance of having productive discussions. After all, we have a job to do to represent workers, and we can’t allow small-mindedness (or our own egos, which may be involved) to get in our way.
At the end of the day, we’re looking for a middle ground between cosy and hostile. A working relationship is one that can allow us to resolve at least minor issues quickly and informally, or through due process, without major confrontation or workplace action.
That said, establishing a good working relationship (that is, respect for differences and respect for process) does not change the fact that at the end of the day we have fundamentally different interests from employers. This means that there will be times when relationships break down, or when we will need to take action that risks a decent working relationship – such as strike action – and we need to be ready and willing to take that action.
Then, when we’re coming back from a strike, a difficult set of negotiations, or from arbitration, we need to be a good winner and a good loser if we want to eventually get back to a working relationship.
Ways to deal with the really difficult Supervisor
Sometimes, no matter how well prepared you are, or how logical your approach, there’s no reasoning with a really difficult supervisor. It’s time for plan ‘B’.
Organize the members to shun all but the most formal contact with this person, to speak only when spoken to, and then only to answer a direct question or comply with a direct order.
The members begin to grieve every violation, major and minor. They protest every departure from past practice or abuse of authority. They use every right they have under the law or the collective agreement.
Sooner or later, upper management wonders why they are having so many problems in your department. You may walk in one day and find a new, more cooperative supervisor to deal with.
Just as you will need to work to make sure your members are not afraid of management, make sure you’re not either! Insist that management deal with you as a steward on an equal footing.
Some supervisors make it their personal mandate to discredit the union by attempting to make the union appear ineffective (delaying decisions, cancelling meetings, etc.). Don’t take the bait. Follow up with everything, spend more time with your members and intensify your communication with members.