Joint Training: Learning on Both Sides of the Fence

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.”

Respect boundaries

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.

Spreading the Learning: The Role of Workplace Climate and Co-workers

If it takes a village to raise a child, then perhaps it takes co-workers to help trainees shine.

Management development experts have long known that organizations get the most out of their training dollars when employees are supported before, during, and after training. Few organizations, however, actually follow this advice.

Models of training effectiveness focus on program design, trainee characteristics, and workplace environment as the key factors that determine transfer of learning. By contrast, Harry J. Martin (Cleveland State University) wanted to study the context in which employees apply and transfer the knowledge and skills learned, specifically the role of workplace climate and peer support.

(Workplace climate includes factors such as adequate resources, cues that remind trainees of what they have learned, opportunities to apply skills, barriers and constraints to transfer, and consequences for using training on the job.)

Martin focused on 237 managers of a manufacturing company in the midwest U.S. who completed a comprehensive training program. He devised a global measure of workplace climate for each of the 12 divisions in which the employees worked and used performance ratings of the participants to measure the level of training transfer.

Martin found that trainees in a division with a more favorable climate and those enjoying greater peer support showed greater improvement. Even better, in terms of transferring learnings, peer support overcame or lessened the effects of a negative office environment.

“The results of this study suggest that follow-up programs should be designed to address both the immediate and general organizational environments,” Martin reports in Human Resource Development Quarterly. “Care must be taken to help ensure that peers and immediate supervisors help trainees put the skills to work. Co-workers could provide general encouragement or be involved in more structured activities such as the peer meetings employed in this study.”

FACTOID: It is estimated that only 10 to 40 percent of learning transfers to the job.

Reference:

“Workplace Climate and Peer Support as Determinants of Training Transfer,” by Harry J. Martin; Human Resource Development Quarterly (Vol. 21 No. 1 Spring 2010; pp. 87-104)

Has Talent Management Weathered the Economic Storm?

Organizational development and change management more than ever before are being linked to learning and talent development, according to a report recently published by the UK-based CIPD.

“It is clear that organizational development and design will become increasingly important as organizations seek to change, innovate and to link learning to organizational goals,” according to CIPD’s 2010 Learning and Talent Development survey report. But the report also noted that “practitioners are less involved in discussing the design, delivery and impact of learning with other managers. This alignment issue is a key one as L&TD seeks to build its reputation and impact.”

The survey found that for 46 percent of respondents, the major organizational change affecting learning and talent development in the next five years will be a greater integration between coaching, organizational development, and performance management to drive change. For 37 percent, it will be greater responsibility devolved to line managers.

Other findings from the CIPD survey:

  • As a result of the economic downturn, learning and talent development is becoming more focused on value and impact; in other words, doing more with less. “It will be particularly important for professionals to ensure that their L&TD activities are even more closely aligned with business strategy and to be able to assess the return on investment generated.”
  • Almost 60 percent of organizations undertake talent management activities. Among these, half rate such activities as “effective” and only 3 percent consider them “very effective”. The three most effective activities to manage talent are coaching (39 percent), in-house development programmes (32 percent), and high-potential development schemes (31 percent).
  • The three most common ways to evaluate talent management activities are to obtain feedback from line managers (42 percent), to measure the retention of those identified as high-potential (35 percent), and the anecdotal observation of change (35 percent).
  • In terms of leadership skills, the main gaps identified by employers were performance management (setting standards for performance and dealing with underperformance) and leading and managing change.
  • Internships are growing in popularity, partly because employers want to provide a lifeline for talented young people. The results are encouraging. “The fact that a third of firms report higher productivity as a result of their internships is particularly encouraging, given that many interns are new to the workplace and are still in the process of learning new skills.”

About 86 percent of responding organizations (623) had headquarters in the UK and the remainder (101) were based outside the UK.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling, One Bias at a Time

Although working women are piling up educational credentials and experience, in far too many organizations they are still butting up against a glass ceiling. These invisible barriers to upward mobility can come in various forms: lack of mentoring of women, gender stereotyping, and views that men make more effective leaders. In the U.S., women holding the titles of chairman, CEO, COO, and executive vice president remain at about 7 percent of the population of executives.

While many possible causes of the glass ceiling have been studied, one overlooked area is managers’ perceptions of women’s work and family demands. Researchers Jenny M. Hoobler, Sandy J. Wayne, and Grace Lemmon (U of Illinois at Chicago) designed a study to test two ideas: whether managers view women as having more difficulty than men executing their work roles due to family responsibilities; and whether women, based on this perception, are less suitable for promotion. The study was based on a sample of 126 female subordinates and 52 male and female managers from one midwestern-U.S. division of a Fortune 100 transportation firm.

The result was conclusive: “Even though female employees actually reported slightly less family-work conflict than their male counterparts,” the researchers write in the Academy of Management Journal, “their managers still perceived them as having greater family-work conflict, a perception that had significant implications for women’s organizational advancement.” (These biases held for both male and female managers.) Because of these perceptions, managers rated women lower on job and organizational fit and performance.

“We have uncovered a critical dimension of the social role expectations that play a key role in the upward progress of female workers,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, we feel that such stereotyping is quite significant, with strong ramifications for people and organizations, given that these perceptions affect important managerial decisions.”

If these results are a true reflection of what is going on in organizations, there are a couple of practical implications.

One, to reduce or eliminate the impact of gender on managers’ perceptions of family-work conflict, managers must be made aware of their potential to stereotype. This is not simply a male-female issue. As the investigators note, “Male managers have been said to be gatekeepers of the upper echelons of management, yet we found that female managers held family-work conflict stereotypes about female subordinates as well.”

Two, women who participate in company-sponsored programs that assist employees with managing family-work conflict may be signaling to their managers that they need help balancing home and work domains. Given prevailing stereotypes, this would likely kill their opportunities to be promoted.

Reference:

Hoobler, Jenny M., Sandy J. Wayne, and Grace Lemmon. “Bosses’ perceptions of family-work conflict and women’s promotability: Glass ceiling effects.” Academy of Management Journal 52, No. 5 (2009): 939-957

The Rise of Conglomerate Unions: Less Than Meets the Eye?

Trade union mergers in Europe and North America have been going strong since the Second World. It is almost always a question of survival: mergers or absorptions are thought to help unions maintain or grow membership to sustain their financial base and increase bargaining power.

While in the past mergers occurred among unions in the same industry or occupation, more recently unions from different parts of the economy have merged to create super-unions, such as ver.di in Germany and UNITE in the UK.

Across the pond in the U.S. starting in the 1980s, five unions led the way in multi-jurisdictional mergers: the Service Employees’ Union, the Union Food and Commercial Workers, the Communications Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the United Steelworkers of America.

You could understand their logic: the trade union movement saw the decline of master agreements, which led to decentralized bargaining and greater administrative costs. There was a sudden decline in organizing and subsequent loss of union revenue. “Mergers came to be seen as a potentially cost-effective alternative to organizing as a means of sustaining membership levels,” writes Kim Moody (Centre for Research in Employment Studies, U Hertfordshire) in the British Journal of Industrial Relations. “With smaller unions looking for mergers to survive, jurisdiction became less important for both those willing to be absorbed and those seeking more members.”

Moody took a detailed look at multi-jurisdictional unionism in the U.S. In particular, he assessed the three major arguments in its favour: that it improves the union’s finances, that it increases organizing capacity, and that it boosts union bargaining power.

Moody’s conclusion: Conglomerate unions “do not achieve notable improvements in these three areas, nor do they perform better than other large unions that have engaged in fewer mergers over time. All that can be said is that mergers may prevent even worse performance outcomes, hardly what the advocates of conglomerate mergers claim.”

Are multi-jurisdictional unions in better financial shape? One measure is the degree to which the membership itself finances the union through dues and fees. All the unions studied by Moody rely heavily on income from investments and the sales of assets to cover total costs. As well, bigger unions mean ballooning staff and administrative costs.

Do union mergers lead to increased organizing? “While greater resources could increase organizing capacity,” Moody writes, “a good deal of these resources appear to go on staff and administrative costs as the number of sectors and agreements proliferate.”

Do these unions have greater bargaining power? The reality is that strikes are more infrequent, real weekly wages have declined, and benefits won in earlier times have been rolled back. “As measured by the outcomes of wage agreements in the major jurisdictions of these unions,” writes Moody, “there is no evidence of improved or above average performance. In fact, many of these agreements fall short of the average increases for unionized workers generally and in their major economic sectors.”

References:

“The Direction of Union Mergers in the United States: The Rise of Conglomerate Unionism,” by Kim Moody; British Journal of Industrial Relations (47:4 December 2009 0007-1080 pp. 676-700)

Network Acupuncture

Leaders who excel over time utilize organizational networks in distinctive ways to compensate for weaknesses in formal structures, says Rob Cross (U of Virginia) and colleagues who conducted network analyses at more than 100 organizations.

In the journal Organizational Dynamics, Cross et al map out five principles that drive productive organizational networks.

1. Manage the centre

Cross finds that 3 to 5 percent of people in a network account for 20 to 35 percent of the “value-added ties” – collaborations that generate sales, efficiency gains, or key innovations. But these hubsters are often not managed or leveraged intelligently. The lesson for leaders: locate employees at the centre of networks and manage them well.

Specifically look for bottlenecks and hidden stars. For bottlenecks, figure out if they are central because of their position on the org chart or because of their expertise and leadership qualities. If they are central because of their roles, shift decision rights or responsibilities to others. If they are experts or born leaders, identify the strengths that the network is seeking from them and build these capabilities in others.

And hidden stars? “We have found that there is only a 25 to 40 percent overlap between the individuals classified as ‘top talent’ by the organization and those who are revealed in a network analysis to be critical enablers of others.” The researchers suggest acknowledging the contributions of hidden stars with promotions or increased pay.

2. Leverage the periphery

For maximum benefit, focus on two outlier groups: newcomers and high performers who have drifted. For new hires, create initial assignments and encourage behaviors that integrate people into existing networks rapidly. For underutilized high-performers, re-engagement has to be done on a case-by-case basis. “Roughly 30 percent of the employees considered as top talent – those on high performer lists or in the top 20 percent performance category – have migrated to the fringe of the network.”

3. Selectively bridge collaborative silos

The strength of the network idea at a unit level, writes Cross and colleagues, “is that it allows us to see more precisely how to connect not everybody – but only the four, five, or six junctures that can allow the organization to differentiate itself strategically.” To bridge the “white space” created by divisional boundaries, geography, or hierarchies, a network analysis can be commissioned to show unit heads how they are connected across regional and product groups.

4. Develop the ability to surge

Cross says “surging” happens when networks sense opportunities or problems in one pocket of a network and rapidly tap into the expertise of others in the network to coordinate an effective response. Cross: “As new opportunities arise, employees need to know who has relevant expertise that can be helpful; they need to have a sense of who knows what in the network.”

5. Minimize insularity

Effective networks do not stop at “city limits” but extend out to clients and sources of expertise. For example in professional services, Cross writes, understanding touch points with key customers is a critical network view.

Reference:

How Effective Leaders Drive Results Through Networks, by Rob Cross, Amanda Cowen, Lisa Vertucci, and Robert J. Thomas; Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 93-105, 2009

Measuring the Practice-Research Gap

There is yawning chasm between practice and research. The gap is twofold: HR practitioners are generally not aware of the latest HR-related research findings that impact on their work; and HR practitioners and researchers are interested in different issues.

Researchers Diana L. Deadrick and Pamela Gibson (Old Dominion University) wanted to determine how consistent that gap has been over time and what issues have dominated the practice and research fields over the past 30 years. To answer those questions they went on a massive reading binge. They content-analyzed more than 6,300 articles published in four HR-focused journals between 1976 and 2005 according to 14 topic areas. Two journals were geared to practitioners and two to academics.

Deadrick and Gibson found:

  • Issues relating to HR development (training and development, careers) dominated the field over all time periods. Next most common topic over time was staffing (such as job analysis, testing), followed by motivation-related topics (job design, satisfaction, stress).
  • Two topics – teams and organizational exit – were the least popular in all the time periods studied. Teams did experience some growth in interest during the past 20 years, though organizational exit continued to be off the radar.
  • HR development and staffing issues were the dominant issues for both practitioners and academics. The gap in interest narrowed over time for employee/labour relations and widened for compensation and rewards (with growing interest among practitioners and decreasing interest among academics.

The researchers say they want HR practitioners and academics to assess the field and determine what is most important to HR as a coherent discipline. “If we want to progress as a field, we need to articulate the common values and body of knowledge that sets up apart from other disciplines,” they write. “What is the mission statement of the HR discipline as a whole? What are the core values underlying the field of HR? Are those values reflected in our publications?”

Good questions indeed.

Note: The four journals studied were: HRMagazine, Human Resource Management, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Personnel Psychology.

Reference:

Revisiting the research-practice gap in HR: A longitudinal analysis, by Diana L. Deadrick and Pamela A. Gibson; in Human Resource Management Review 19 (2009) 144-153

Running in Place, Staying One Step Ahead

The modern HR professional looks a lot like poor Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, running feverishly with the Red Queen only to be staying in the same place, says Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper.

In a keynote address to the Association of Ontario University HR Professionals (AOUHRP) 2009 Conference, Mr. Juniper offered a sweeping perspective on the new roles of the modern HR professional.

“It’s all HR people can do to keep pace with the changing demands and expectations that are being placed on them,” he told attendees. “But they are going to have to run even harder to if they hope to stay relevant in their organizations.”

Running harder means honing skills that are outside the traditional HR silos. Of late the case was made most convincingly by academic Dave Ulrich and colleagues, who listed six competencies required for high-performing HR professionals of the future. The first three are foundational: credible activist, business ally, and operational executor. The higher order competencies address organizational capabilities: strategy architect, culture and change steward, and talent manager and organization designer.

This maps well onto research by the U.S.-based Society for Human Resource Management, Mr. Juniper said. Its survey asked HR professionals to identify the most important factors in attaining their next HR job. The top three were strategic/critical thinking skills, leadership skills, and interpersonal communication skills.

“If you’ll notice, for these higher order roles not much depends on your technical ability in compensation, benefits, or recruitment,” Mr. Juniper said. “The minimum price of admission is to be operationally excellent because no one will trust you to talk about strategy if you can’t get people paid on time. It’s necessary but not sufficient.”

Many HR professionals will have to leave their comfort zones of managing HR processes and take on entirely new portfolios. Mr. Juniper cited the results of a recent survey by the B.C. Human Resources Management Association on the new focus areas for HR. They included organizational restructuring, employer branding, measurement, strategic workforce planning, corporate social responsibility, and risk management.

“These roles are open to HR people if they want them,” he said. “It’s like corporate communications; many HR professionals don’t want to have anything to do with it because they think it’s boring. But control over corporate communications gives you control over the corporate agenda. It is not a traditional role but there are real synergies and opportunities.”

Recession-Era Labour Relations: Pocket Book Thriller or Stephen King Trilogy?

The economic upheaval currently gripping world economies will profoundly alter the dynamics of labour relations in Ontario, says a senior official in Ontario’s Ministry of Labour.

In a presentation in late March to Queen’s School of Policy Studies, Kevin Wilson, Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Labour’s Policy, Program Development, and Dispute Resolution Services Division, said the current recession has hit Ontario hardest: consumer confidence is the lowest in Canada; unemployment is headed for 9 percent; and the crucial automobile and parts manufacturing market has been decimated.

This merely punctuates the steady erosion of Ontario’s manufacturing base: in 2000 manufacturing made up 18 percent of the province’s workforce; that is now down to 13 percent, and “I expect it to bottom out at nine to 10 percent,” Wilson said. As a whole, private sector union density in Ontario now sits at 15 percent.

Ontario is already seeing a “massive collapse in the private sector settlement pattern”, he said, with very little if any increase in wage settlements. Wilson expects public sector settlements to follow this downward trend over the next six to nine months.

The frequency in strikes in the private sector is falling as well, and there is unprecedented demand and willingness to reopen collective agreements, with even the Canadian Auto Workers “stripping out costs” to help avert corporate bankruptcy.

“The risk is that in some sectors such as auto and forestry, there will be a race to the bottom,” Wilson said. “As companies undercut each other to hang on to market share, unions will begin to draw the line on how far they will go in accepting concessions.”

The challenge for private sector unions is significant. The amount and speed of change may exceed the ability of some unions to respond. “Those that can adapt may survive, but there’s no guarantee,” said Wilson. “The threat of globalization is forcing unions to abandon national borders to respond to the mobility of capital.”

He sees some unions and sectors, such as Ontario’s construction industry, experimenting with new forms of collaboration. Another example from the U.S. is the United Auto Workers creating trust funds (known as VEBA) that provide for the healthcare benefits of GM and Ford retirees.

The dynamics driving Ontario’s public sector labour relations are quite different. There the issue is not survival but managing mounting public debt and signing affordable collective agreements. Public employees will be looking for security while public employers will bargain for greater workforce flexibility. “Employers will discover they can still achieve their fiscal results through hard bargaining” rather than calling on government to use a legislative hammer, said Wilson.

Wilson listed a number of “forks in the road” or decisive pivot points for labour relations players. For the private sector these include:

  • Will global economies continue to integrate or will protectionist pressures win the day?
  • Will employers and unions accept the need to make common cause or not?
  • Will governments maintain a social safety net or accept greater social unrest?
  • Can unions re-brand themselves to connect with youth and immigrants or risk losing relevance?

Wilson identified a couple of key issues for public sector labour relations:

  • Will the nimbleness of the private sector increase the public debate for increased contracting out of public services?
  • What will the ascendance of public sector unions mean for Canada’s labour movement?

“Coming out of this recession, Ontario’s economy will be fundamentally changed,” said Wilson. “The question is, is this chapter three of a six chapter thriller or chapter one of a Stephen King trilogy?”

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