It is a sunny day in June 2008, and in the Calgary office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a gathering of senior managers of ENMAX Power Corporation and members of IBEW Local 254 is getting animated. The lively discussion centres on the hot-button topic of discipline: when should managers invoke it and how can it be made fair and transparent? The discussion falls along party lines, and neither the managers nor the union members hold back.
In the midst of it all, John Briegel, Kirstan Jewell, and Mark Taylor watch the proceedings with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. It was their unorthodox idea to put managers and shop stewards together as part of a three-day Joint Leadership and Excellence training program. For Briegel, Business Manager for IBEW Local 254, Jewell, formerly ENMAX's Director of Employee Relations, and Taylor, ENMAX's Manager of Civil Works, the no-holds-barred, yet respectful debate over worker discipline, showed that the participants were taking the training program seriously, and actually getting into the spirit of learning.
"I was surprised by how engaged the people were," Jewell says, thinking back to that first session. "I thought we were delivering something of value, but I wasn't sure how we would be perceived by participants or the organization. The folks were highly participatory. The feedback was that we needed more. It's a big time commitment, so for the program to be supported is really positive."
Since the June 2008 session, ENMAX Power has run two more three-day programs for some 15 IBEW leaders and shop stewards, ENMAX directors, and line managers. Beating some long odds, joint training looks to be growing roots in the Alberta electricity provider.
Joint union-management training is unusual in North America, and it's not hard to figure out why. On the continuum of union-management relations—from confrontation through armed truce, working harmony, and cooperation—a great many relationships sit on the cantankerous side. And for the few joint training programs that sprout as promising shoots, many are soon cut down because union members perceive that their leadership is too cozy with management and not looking after worker interests.
On the other hand, the benefits of jointly training managers and shop stewards are tantalizing. The promise lies in increasing boundary-spanning knowledge, reducing the friction that can lead to high grievance costs or work stoppages, and finding shared ways of meeting change head on.
Based on its recent history, ENMAX Power was a prime candidate for joint union-management training. The organization is a subsidiary of ENMAX Corporation, which, in turn, is owned by the City of Calgary. Its first experience with collective bargaining with the IBEW in 2001 was "brutal," says Briegel. "The changed world of the electric utility in Calgary had created a significant level of concern among the workers and what was now in many respects a new management group that had yet to develop a labour relations philosophy. There were 280 separate proposals for change at that negotiation. It became somewhat of a marathon."
For the next agreement, though, there was a new management bargaining team in place, and the two sides agreed to participate in facilitated mutual gains bargaining. "It was from this negotiation that we created the Employee Relation's Council," Briegel says, "and the ability to work collaboratively solving problems as they arose, rather than saving them up for the next negotiation."
When they wrapped-up the 2007 collective bargaining session, Briegel invited Jewell and Taylor to the IBEW union hall to watch a video conference featuring the union's American president talking about a code of excellence. "It was quite astounding," recalls Taylor, a former IBEW member for close to 20 years. "At one point, John looked over at me and said, Your mouth is open. And I said, I can't believe I am hearing a president of a union speaking about members having to be more productive and to quit spending so much time in the coffee shop."
At the same time, it was clear to both management and the union that supervisors and shop stewards needed training, both to avoid sliding back to the days of confrontation and to keep up with changes brought on by a competitive marketplace. "We realized that we needed to change the culture in the group," Taylor says. "Utilities are a different animal. The old utility worker, once you're in, you keep you nose clean and retire with a good pension. When Alberta deregulated utilities, we needed to get competitive. We realized that if we didn't start training our union leaders at the leader level, we weren't going to get there."
Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor put their heads together to imagine what the curriculum would look like. Rising to the top was the need to educate stewards and supervisors on how decisions are made and to see issues from a bigger perspective. Their hope was that if stewards and supervisors understood each other's roles, festering issues could be resolved. They figured the best way to educate staff and open communication channels was to put all trainees in a room and treat them all the same way: on one day of training they'd be shop stewards, the other day front-line supervisors.
In developing the curriculum, Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor made use of resources from Queen's University IRC, a management development unit specializing in labour relations, human resources, and organization development. Both Jewell and Taylor received Queen's IRC Certificates for completing three labour relations programs. From their Queen's experience, they received inspiration and gleaned practical ideas on how to stage an in-house collective bargaining simulation and make adult learning interesting. (The IRC also provides customized training for those organizations, upon request.) "Queen's has been phenomenal in sending us learning resources to use," Taylor says. "Labour Relations Foundations was, without a doubt, the best program I've taken in my life. It was the course that got me thinking about doing a better job on union training."
The first day of the Joint Leadership and Excellence training program features a review of the ENMAX and IBEW Local 254 relationship, the structure of the corporation and the union, a piece on leadership and culture change, and a collective bargaining simulation. The second day focuses on employee accountability, the supervisor's role, progressive discipline, the IBEW's Code of Excellence, and "safety leadership." The final day explores how grievances are handled.
To test their curriculum design, the trio piloted the program with colleagues whom they knew would offer constructive feedback. They got that and more: the pilot project served to drum up interest for the first program, particularly among union members.
The IBEW Local 254, in fact, was ready and primed for joint training. "This was not a difficult sell to the members as the majority of them depend on a relatively small group of stewards to look after their interests," Briegel says. "The stewards, on the other hand, were constantly asking for training. We also have a history of working together on Joint Apprenticeship Committees, Bid Committees, health and safety issues, and operational practices."
Selling joint training to senior management was more challenging. Jewell and Taylor had to battle the perception of joint training as a "flavour of the week" and try to counter the argument that, "we've done things this way for years, why change now?" But luck was on their side: On the second day of the pilot program, which was held at the ENMAX head office, three members of the Board of Directors were in the building. They asked to sit in on the change management session and were impressed by what they experienced. So much so that they went to the Board meeting and sang its praises. Jewell and Taylor also had a believer in the executive suite. Rick Ehlers, Executive Vice President of Transmission and Distribution Services, has a labour relations background and years ago led the way in encouraging more cooperation with the IBEW.
With three sessions under their belts, Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor plan to fine-tune the curriculum and consider expanding it into another unionized part of the business. They are also looking to improve upon the learning manual and to create a facilitator's manual.
They have plenty of work ahead of them, but now the trio has something substantial to build upon. They also have tangible proof: the latest round of collective bargaining took only 12 days. "My expectation going in was to provide the skills and tools to the Shop Stewards Group to allow them to be more effective in that role" Breigel says. "This has, for the most part, been met and an evident bonus has been their increased level of co-operation between stewards and managers."
But they are under no illusion that joint training provides innoculation against conflict and misunderstanding. To be sure, there have been challenges dealing with terminations and new industry policies on drug testing. Without ongoing commitment by the IBEW and ENMAX, they say, the gains can easily be lost. "We're not all the way there yet but we're turning into family," says Taylor. "The union is walking side by side with us."
What We've Learned
Here is what John Briegel, Kirstan Jewell, and Mark Taylor have learned about launching a joint training program.
Find ways to build trust
You don't have to have perfect labour relations, but you do require mutual respect. Briegel: "Sometimes it can be as simple as 'We are predictable to each other and we know that our job is to look after each of our respective interests and in doing so we will be truthful to each other.' If you can believe that to be true, you can build a working relationship that uses its energy to challenge the right things."
Joint training is an extreme "relationship management" challenge. Each side has to be aware and respectful of boundaries, particularly the other side's boundaries. That means giving your union or management partner room to manage their own stakeholders.
Stay true to the process of authentic collaboration
Don't pay lip service—put yourselves in the shoes of the participants and consider their needs. Good ideas need to win out, regardless of who came up with them. Don't keep score.
Be open and honest
Jewell: "We're honest about what we do. On day one we talk about the continuum of labour relations and where we are on the spectrum. We peg ourselves mid-way and say we probably don't want to be harmonious. We have a strong union and strong management and through creativity and open and honest dialogue we can come up with better solutions. So we have to be realistic around where you are."
Bring energy to the room
Adult learners do best in a safe and engaging environment. Simulated negotiations offer excellent insights that stick.
Build the business case
What's the cost of the status quo versus moving to a mutual gains perspective? Taylor: "You can spend money on lawyers or spend money on training your people in open communications. In Alberta, a typical three-day arbitration case costs at least $50,000. Someone is getting rich so why isn't it your workforce?" At ENMAX, the operational practices committee last year, working with the union, found more than $1 million in efficiencies.