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Dealing with Difficult Bosses

From Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Five, Number 3

Union stewards have to deal with all sorts of management representatives, people with a wide range of styles and approaches to their jobs and the ways they deal with the union. Check out some of the more exotic of these birds, as described in this article, and see how veteran stewards recommend handling them –and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. As your read, though, keep in mind that no two people are exactly alike and that these suggestions won’t work in every situation. Ultimately, a steward’s unique situation and workplace, combined with the school of hard knocks, will allow him or her to figure out how to deal with difficult supervisors.
 
Friendly but Unresponsive
This type almost always says that she’ll follow through on your requests (such as an information request or a proposal to transfer an employee away from an abusive supervisor, for example). But somehow there is always a holdup. Maybe she puts the blame on upper management or says it is harder than she thought to deliver what you want. Either way, if the request is not honored in a reasonable time (and/or in accordance with your contract), move to the next step. That might be a grievance, an unfair labor practice or a meeting with higher-ups in management. Be sure to get everything in writing. This type cannot be depended on.
 
The Intimidator
This person likes to shout or try to make you feel as if you don’t know what you’re doing –or both. You should stay calm and deal with him professionally, in a matter-of-fact way. If this doesn’t work, particularly in a bargaining situation, the union team may want to walk out, letting the management side know that you will return when they can control their problem child. You can also consider exposing the obnoxious manager in a leaflet or newsletter. (“Whose afraid of the big, bad manager? Not this union!” or “Meet Mr. Personality.”) If you really feel that he has greater knowledge than you, putting you at a disadvantage, ask your local leadership for guidance or assistance. Remember that this manager is just a blowhard; you are part of a strong organization.
 
In-Your-Face Anti-Union
This manager doesn’t hide the fact that she doesn’t like unions. In fact, she tells you just that, and lets you know that she isn’t going to do anything to help the union. In some ways, this person is easier to deal with than some other types because there is no question where she stands. Go by the book with her. Be careful to put everything in writing, don’t miss deadlines and keep your membership informed and involved. If she is being obstinate in resolving a legitimate grievance, consider doing this: Make sure that you are meeting with her one day during the lunch break or after work. Organize a large group of union members to come into the room and surround the table. Make the point that the members are not happy with management’s behavior and are involved and ready to act.
 
Labor Relations Jock
This management type is very competitive and sees labor relations as a game of one-on-one basketball. After a particularly grueling meeting he might approach you and say, “Good session” (as in “Good game”). He has a big ego, and frequently tries to impress you with his knowledge of precedents and the union contract, when half the time the “facts” he cites do not actually support management’s position. Many stewards deal with him by asking him to point out specific cases and contract language that support his argument. Because this type want to impress you with his research skills, he may actually give them to you (of course, you should ask for your leadership’s help in doing your own research, where necessary). Do not let him intimidate you with his supposed knowledge. Be prepared when dealing with him and remember that labor relations is not a one-on-one game –it’s a team sport. Involve your team by keeping your local leadership up to date and your members informed and active. Union power comes from a united and involved membership.
 
The Liar
This person makes promises to the union that she breaks. One steward tells of a manager who said on a Friday afternoon that she was going to move one worker to a new work station, but the steward discovered on Monday that she had moved three workers over the weekend, without bargaining. It is important to expose such lies to the membership and even to others in management. If it is a bargaining issue, point out her lies during negotiations. If the lie is a violation of your contract or the law, consider filing a grievance or discuss with your local leadership the possibility of filing an unfair labor practice. Also, confirm in writing all of your discussions with the Liar to minimize her lying, or for evidence in grievances, unfair labor practices, and the like.
 
The Fair Player
You will deal with many difficult types of bosses in your career as a union steward. However, you may run across a supervisor who is fair and reasonable, who actually wants to do the right thing. Help him or her develop arguments that can be used with upper management. Let this supervisor have small symbolic victories to strengthen his or her position with management, as long as these victories don’t hurt the membership. But be careful to remember that this person is working for your employer, and do not let your relationship make you forget for whom you are working.
 
Ultimately, whatever type of boss you are dealing with, remember these basics: Always be prepared, adhere to deadlines, and know your contract. And most of all, keep your membership informed and involved.
 
-Carl Goldman, The writer is executive director of AFSCME Council 26, Washington, D.C.