Shifting from Traditional to Mutual Gains Bargaining: Implementing Change in Canada

The significant transformation of the Canadian economy and system of production in the past decade has not left the industrial relations system untouched. Managers and union leaders have become more and more aware of their interdependence and vulnerability, through their experience of plant closings, layoffs, loss of market share and technological obsolescence. Does the lower level of labour strife mean that parties are biding their time and expecting the good old days to return? Or are we witnessing deeper, more lasting changes in how we determine working conditions and manage human resources? The great majority of researchers and practitioners seem to agree that current economic and labour market transformations are structural rather than merely cyclical in nature.

Despite significant changes in how labour contracts are reached, the adversarial process which characterizes traditional collective bargaining remains predominant. Collective bargaining is still the cornerstone of our system of union-management relations. It has a profound impact on the climate in the workplace, which in turn significantly influences a firm’s productivity and competitiveness (Grant and Harvey 1993). Many participatory devices have been introduced in the workplace, but the pace of innovation is much slower at the bargaining table, where distributive tactics still prevail, as manifested in win-lose and we-us approaches on the part of negotiators. However, the idea of mutual-gains bargaining (MGB) is being examined by an increasing number of people who are preoccupied with the survival and adaptation of collective bargaining.

Before looking at the conditions favouring the shift from adversarial to more cooperative bargaining tactics, we must examine why traditional bargaining is being called into question. We will begin at the analytical and theoretical level, to provide a conceptual tool for policymaking and strategy formulation by those who seek innovative union-management relations. Our discussion will then move on to describe how some negotiators have tried to make the transition from traditional bargaining to MGB. This description is based on interviews and round-table discussions with practitioners, and on the experience that members of our group in Quebec have had as trainers and facilitators since 1993.

MGB is based on the parties’ awareness of their interdependence and on their willingness to probe core and common interests in order to reach win-win agreements as they search for solutions to common problems. MGB requires more cooperative attitudes from bargainers, and it calls for integrative tactics. However, there are major obstacles on the road to MGB, rooted in the long-standing, built-in assumptions and role definitions of the experts and activists involved in collective bargaining. We must look at MGB from the moment it is planned and designed, and we must ask what are the best conditions for implementing and sustaining it.

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