Among the surge of political, economic and demographic factors elevating the importance of labor relations skills, the most important motivation for HR professionals to strengthen their labor relations expertise might be personal.
Negotiating a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with a single union representing 300 to 400 employees financially commits a company to millions of dollars during the course of the agreement, notes Andrea Terrillion, director of labor relations programs at Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School. "Nobody, not even the CEO, has the discretion to write that check on his or her own," she adds. "When HR folks talk about a seat at the table, there is nothing more 'seat at the table' than being intimately involved in these negotiations. ... It's a high-risk, high-stakes role."
Bernard Ruesgen, SPHR, corporate group HR manager, logistics and distribution centers, for Englewood, Colo.-based retailer Sports Authority, has worked on both sides of the bargaining table, and he agrees with Terrillion. "If you're trying to get a seat at the big table without [labor relations expertise]," he asserts, "it's not going to happen."
The coming months should present ample opportunity for HR professionals to punch their tickets to strategic decisionmaking tables. U.S. union membership, having declined annually for almost 50 years, posted its first increase in a generation during 2007.
Although the country's 15.7 million union members account for only 12.1 percent of the country's wage and salary workers, working with unions represents only part of the labor relations job description; the other part involves preventing unions from entering the company. Union activity is likely to increase, thanks to changes to the National Labor Relations Act, strenuous economic conditions, increasing globalization--and the retirement of veteran labor relations experts.
These drivers make labor relations expertise more important--and more …