4 Helpful Rules for Building Relationships with Labor Unions

Michelle Sullivan
Personal relationships help to build internal consensus on direction, to support problem-solving efforts, and ultimately to resolve disputes.

Personal relationships help to build internal consensus on direction, to support problem-solving efforts, and ultimately to resolve disputes.

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When I recall law school and my early practice, emphasis was generally placed on developing strong technical knowledge of the law. While we had plenty of relationship building experiences, they focused on the immediate need of building a network for professional opportunities, such as finding one’s first job. The lesson to be learned at that time was that relationship building could help us advance our careers. In private practice, building client relationships was a way to ensure clients trusted my advice, and relationship building in my bar association and community was primarily in hopes of gaining new clients for my law firm. But, a few years ago, I made a significant career transition that gave me an entirely new meaning of relationship building. 

After 17 years of practicing as a lawyer who represented labor unions, I transitioned to a completely new industry representing “the other side”—the employer. My new role—director of labor relations for Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center—presented a major learning curve. I was in a new industry, representing a different perspective—the employer’s—and no longer functioning as a lawyer. While my prior experience was helpful to my new role, it quickly became apparent that the ability to build relationships, both internally and with the labor unions representing our employees, was equally, if not more, important than any of the technical knowledge I possessed. While technical knowledge is necessary to inform the advice you provide, without personal relationships, it is difficult to build internal consensus on direction, to support problem-solving efforts, and ultimately to resolve disputes.

Every institution presents unique characteristics, and each situation might call for its own specific approach, but I’ve found these rules of thumb to be helpful while building and maintaining the relationships needed to resolve the difficult issues that may arise in union relationships and negotiations:

Consider the Long Game

In my role, I remain long after the dust has settled from a difficult grievance or contract negotiation. It is essential to carefully balance efforts to negotiate contract terms or resolve grievances on terms that meet the institution’s interests while also taking care to maintain the bridges needed with our union leaders and our employees to resolve potential problems in the future. There is necessarily a huge difference between my goals, strategy, and approach versus that of, for example, an external lawyer who is called in to litigate a case and then move on to the next case for another client.

Use In-Person Communication

In an age when it is more convenient to send an email, text message, or use an online messenger, it is still important to talk face-to-face. Too much important information can get lost in context or be misunderstood when communications are limited to a digital format, doing more harm than good when a disagreement needs to be resolved.

Walk in Their Shoes

There will always be disagreements, but seeing the issue from the other party’s perspective is important when looking for common ground. This helps to bridge gaps between those differences and aids in finding creative ways to resolve those disagreements. For someone working with labor unions, it is essential to truly understand and appreciate the challenges of the employees’ day-to-day work. If the labor union you work with is agreeable, shadowing employees during their workday is a great way to achieve this.

Disagreements Happen but Do Not Be Disagreeable

Despite the best efforts and intentions, there will be scenarios where parties simply cannot resolve a disagreement. When this happens, it is important to agree to disagree and maintain civility and respect in your interactions because the parties must continue to work together. This can be particularly challenging in the heat of the moment, so the key is to recognize disagreeable behavior, step back, and adjust.

None of this is easy, and even as I write this article, I am continuing to work on my own ability to adhere to the principles set forth above and work at relationship building within my own organization. The process of building relationships takes time and cannot be forced within any timeframe. It takes time to build trust in the beginning and perseverance to continue those efforts over time. Sometimes setbacks occur despite all best intentions. Labor relations is a business about people, and as people we make mistakes. But it is important to recognize the mistake when it happens, correct course when it is possible, and continue to strive toward strong, open, and collegial relationships.

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Michelle Sullivan

Michelle Sullivan is the director of labor relations at Michigan Medicine, where she leads a labor relations team that serves a leading academic medical center with more than 26,000 employees and multiple unions.