When I worked in a corporation on a union centered company with very high production, management discouraged me from interfacing with union leaders as they felt that the union wants to work at cross purposes; do what the member wants vs what I feel the member needs. Another issue of concern for the company was that the case may go to a hearing and the clinician would be sitting on the company side and the union would be on the “opposing side.”
In my first several years working in companies with large amounts of union employees, I had no contact with the union. Rather, a manager in the company was designated to provide communication to the union. This way the clinician could make the determination about the best course of treatment without union input. Sometimes union leaders would give the union member the name of a therapist that they felt the member should go to. Then, the member would come into my office and hand me the piece of paper and say, “my union wants you to send me to this person.” I was always taken aback as the person hadn’t been evaluated yet. Certain treatment centers or private therapists may be known as “union psychologists” or “advocates” for the member and know the union leadership.
Managers can do the same thing. They have meetings with employees and start to get into discussions about the employees’ problems versus referring the employee to the EAP so that they can evaluate them and make clinical recommendations. Sometimes I have to tell managers to be clear about their role and that if they are concerned about their employees and want to support them, there are services and professionals who are trained to help them.
Having a close alliance with the shop stewards and business agents has become more critical in recent years. Whenever the union senses that something has changed with an employee, the union will speak to them and get them on the phone with me or one of my colleagues so that there is an immediate intervention. Their hope is that work performance stays at the level that is expected and to lessen the chance of a manager getting involved. If the union smells alcohol or thinks a member has been using drugs, they do the same thing by stressing the need to speak with a trained counselor. Another thing that is done is to have the member go out sick so that they are not tested or it doesn’t escalate in the workforce before counseling staff can intervene and start the treatment process.
If someone is mandated to our drug and alcohol program and is not attending the groups and drug testing, the union has offered to speak to the member to show that we are on the same page or to get on a call with me and speak to the member with me to stress the importance of following the treatment protocol.
When I first started working with companies, I assumed that the union would not be an asset or may interfere with the treatment process. However, in recent years, I have learned that unions want members to address their problems to be able to do their work and become even better employees. The union has proved to be a key asset in helping to make this happen.
Kay Gimmestad, LCSW-C is a business coach and clinician in New York City with 20 years of experience working in the profit and not for profit sectors of Human Resources, Health and Human Services. She has built a reputation for being highly skilled in facilitating behavior change while working with employees, both individually and in groups, on matters relating to performance management, substance abuse, crisis intervention, and stress/wellness.