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Most times credit unions and labor unions co-exist with no problems, but as clearly demonstrated in well-publicized difficulties between several credit unions and the labor unions representing their staffs, sometimes they can be at each other’s throats. One obvious result is bad relations between unionized employees and management and the board. Another is an across-the-board severely damaged image, especially when the animosity gets so intense that it lasts decades after the conflict is resolved. The number one priority of a credit union is to take good care of its members. At the top of the priority list for a labor union is a determination to make sure its members, employees of the credit union, are treated fairly and make a decent wage for their contribution towards taking care of those same credit union members. When bitter disputes arise between credit unions and unions, there is plenty of blame to go around for both parties. Usually, in the end, neither side really wins. Instead, both get a black eye among all the parties involved as well as those reading blow by blow accounts. Even though I’m in the business, one of the biggest mistakes credit unions and unions make as the war of words escalates is to argue their case in the press. He said. She said. He denies he said. She denies she said. The rhetoric gets louder and stronger until little if any real communication is taking place. Meanwhile that image factor mentioned above comes into play. It runs from: “What’s wrong with those credit unions? I thought they were supposed to be for the little guy?” To the opposite extreme: “There go those greedy unions again. They don’t care if acquiescing to their outrageous demands would put the credit union under and hurt the members and create a loss of jobs in the process.” When things get real nasty and out of control, both sides have only each other to blame. First the credit union: Frequently credit unions engage legal counsel with a well-deserved reputation for helping organizations avoid unionization in the first place and for utilizing union busting tactics where one already exists. When a credit union hires such a firm, they risk alienating all their union employees, members who are also union members or sympathetic to unions, and other credit unions, especially those serving unions or with a unionized staff. These legal eagles have also been known to be the main cause for board members not getting re-elected and CEOs getting their walking papers. That is exactly what happened to the then-CUNA CEO during the only strike in CUNA employees’ history over 30 years ago. I personally remember standing on a street corner in Madison, Wisconsin at 2:00 a.m. after a particularly nasty negotiation session that was little more than a shouting match. Several of us who saw the handwriting on the wall were imploring the CUNA chief executive to call off the attorney with a well-known union busting reputation before it was too late. He didn’t. When the ugly strike was finally settled, CUNA staffers returned to work. Shortly thereafter, the CEO was told he was resigning. Connect the dots. As for trying the merits of the dispute in the press, credit unions involved usually end up reacting to what union spokespersons say, no matter how outrageous. What the CU representative should do is initiate press contact and give only the facts. Rule number one: don’t stonewall and don’t inflame. Credit unions frequently make another huge mistake in dealing with striking union members. They refuse to give them information to which they are entitled to see. One credit union in a particularly acrimonious dispute refused to provide its by-laws, election procedures, etc. to union members. How stupid. Any member can ask to see such membership materials whether or not they happen to be on a picket line. As for the union: It is common for their leaders to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the credit union, even to the point of thinly disguised blackmail, to get a big settlement. They threaten the credit union in many different ways. “We’ll get your members to take their money out and shut you down.” There is no regard for the members who own and use and need the credit union. Or, “We’ll embarrass you in the press and tell the world that credit unions are anti-union and refuse to pay a living wage.” Of course credit unions are not anti-union and do pay a living wage. They do, however, resist mightily being backed into a no-win corner. In their zeal to get everything they can for their members, unions sometimes lose sight of the big picture. The credit union needs to stay in business for the benefit of members and employees, not just employees. Unions also like to make threats to board members who support management’s position. “Wait till the next board election. We’ll make sure you don’t get re-elected,” is a common refrain. In the worst scenarios, unions hurt their own cause by picketing in front of the CEO’s home or doing things so bad they can’t even be described in a family publication. Everyone needs to calm down and get their emotions in check. There needs to be openness in direct communications. Outsider involvement needs to be kept to an absolute minimum. Relevant information needs to be willingly shared. If both sides don’t lose sight of the fact that the credit union doesn’t belong to the union or its members, or to the CEO, or to the board, but to the members, I am confident that most labor disagreements could be a lot shorter and a lot less nasty. A side benefit is that the image of credit unions and labor unions will not be dragged through the mud. Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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