An Inquiry Into the State of Labour Relations in Canada: Executive Summary

In November 2011, Queen’s IRC launched a 37-question survey, “An Inquiry into the State of LR in Canada.” The purpose of this survey was to describe the state of the labour relations (LR) profession in Canada, based on the perspectives of practitioners. When the survey closed on December 16, 2011, a total of 184 responses were collected.

This practitioner-focused research complements our 2011 exploration of the state of the human resources profession in Canada, and builds on the our 2009 labour relations survey.

This survey was comprised of two sections. In the first section, we explored the varied roles, responsibilities, and credentials of LR professionals. We also probed some of the characteristics of the organizations in which LR professionals are employed. In the second section, we inquired about the level of knowledge, skills, and abilities required for a successful LR professional. We also sought perspectives on the future of the LR profession, including the challenges and opportunities facing the profession and changes that have, and are anticipated to occur, to jobs held by LR professionals. The survey included both closed- and open-ended questions.

This Executive Summary presents an overview of the aggregated survey data.

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Introducing the Strategic Grievance Handling program

I can’t tell you the number of times I have found myself in the midst of a labour arbitration hearing, asking myself, “Why are we doing this?” “Why are we having this hearing?” “What goal do the parties hope to achieve by investing in these expensive days in hearing?” Often, I am sure that the parties themselves do not have an answer to these questions squarely in mind. The results of the Queen’s IRC research (Juniper & Hill, 2011) prove me right. It appears that human resource practitioners have identified a strong need to develop analytical, critical, and strategic thinking – the kinds of skills necessary to ensure that their grievance handling becomes more effective and “strategic”.

When we use the term “strategic” in this field, we are not alluding to the sort of strategy Tony Soprano would use to either foster obedience among his followers, or strike at the heart of the enemy. We are not talking about strategizing for victory in an adversarial process. If that is all a party wants to achieve, they merely have to hire the best lawyer they can find, and outsource the battle. We are talking about a different sort of strategy for the handling of grievances – the kind that nurtures, for both the union and the management representative, the sort of informed, deliberate action in addressing conflict that will serve the party’s long term goals.

We want human resource practitioners, whether union or management side in orientation, to stop merely “handling” grievances – opening one file after another, taking the next step, booking a date, taking the meeting, and so on. We want human resource practitioners to approach each conflict, from the moment it comes to their attention, to the point at which it is resolved, with thoughtful and skilled deliberate action.

No letter should be written unless it fits the strategy. No meeting should be taken unless the file has been prepared. No mediation or arbitration should be conducted unless it fits into a deliberate and meaningful long term plan.

This is the philosophy behind the development of the IRC’s new Strategic Grievance Handling program.

It will be a tough four-day program, overflowing with information and learning. One learns best by doing, and we will be working! Role plays, exercises, creating our own checklists for desk-side use, observing processes, participating in processes, critiquing each other, learning from the experts, and learning from each other. Plan on working hard and learning hard, while you master the techniques required to be strategic in your work.

Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation: Post-Program Perspectives

In 2009, the IRC conducted a survey of LR professionals to glean their insights on the level of skills, knowledge, and abilities required for the profession. The survey also explored the amount of time LR professionals were spending on certain LR tasks. Based on this research, led by Anne Grant and Stephanie Noel, the IRC determined that Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation is a critical skill that LR professionals must hone. Accordingly, earlier this year, the IRC launched its inaugural Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program. The program is part of the IRC’s new Advanced Labour Relations certificate, which builds on the skills and knowledge acquired in the Labour Relations certificate series. The Advanced Labour Relations certificate includes three programs: Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation (launched in April 2011), Strategic Grievance Handling (launching in May 2012), and Optimizing the Labour-Management Relationship: Leadership Skills for LR professionals (launching in 2013).

I recently spoke with two participants from the April 2011 Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program. During our conversations, the participants were asked to reflect on their IRC experience and provide their honest feedback on the program, including not only the positive aspects of the program, but the ways in which the IRC can improve the program moving forward. This article provides a summary of my conversations with Larry Sparks and Lori Aselstine.

Mr. Larry Sparks is an HR Manager with Omya Canada Inc. In his role, Mr. Sparks is responsible for investigating grievances and employee complaints. The Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program was relevant for Mr. Sparks because it gave him a guide for the fact-finding process. In particular, he came away from the IRC’s programming with a grievance model and the ability to ensure that “all parties are more comfortable with investigation reports.” The program exceeded his expectations, balancing theoretical knowledge with a practical, adaptable model that easily translated to his workplace and the work he is doing.

Mr. Sparks commented on the importance of networking during the program. Throughout the program, Mr. Sparks had the opportunity to dialogue with peers, and talk about organizational issues. As a result of the conversations he had with program participants, he realized the extent to which the problems and scenarios he is faced with are similar to those experienced by his colleagues. Informal learning was a helpful component of the program. Mr. Sparks referred to the IRC’s program as, “good value for your money.” He heard from senior subject matter experts and learned from their expertise. “The quality of the instructors is important to the success of the program,” said Mr. Sparks.

Ms. Lori Aselstine is currently the Director of Strategic HR with the Ministries of Health and Long-Term Care and Health Promotion and Sport in the Ontario Public Service (OPS). This is a new role for her; when she engaged in the IRC’s program she was the Director of the Centre for Employee Relations for the OPS. She chose to participate in the IRC’s programming because it targeted the work she was responsible for managing. Her employees were intimately involved in fact-finding investigations and she provided advice and guidance to employees in these roles. Ms. Aselstine attended the program with the goal of evaluating its relevancy and applicability for the public service. That is, to determine if her staff and colleagues should register in the program, or if her organization should develop a custom Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program.

While Ms. Aselstine’s role has since changed, she remains involved with ensuring that people in the public service have the right kinds of skills and knowledge regarding fact-finding and investigation to facilitate their day-to-day work. In her 31 years of experience in the LR field, Ms. Aselstine has participated in hundreds of investigations. The IRC’s programming, however, was a chance for her to learn more about the preparation and organization of an investigation, and improve her skills in questioning witnesses.

Ms. Aselstine praised the IRC program for its hands-on learning opportunities. “The program has a good mix of lectures and practical exercises. This kind of experiential learning provides a chance to apply the skills and knowledge that are being taught in the program,”

Based on her IRC experience, Ms. Aselstine walked away from the program thinking “how can I bring this training in-house to the public service?” A custom program would allow the material to be directly targeted to human resources, labour relations and occupational health & safety specialists and others responsible for managing investigations. Ms. Aselstine realizes that Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation is “so important for us in a workplace of 60,000 people that is 80% unionized. The program would provide one more tool to facilitate investigations.”

In closing, the IRC is grateful to Larry Sparks and Lori Aselstine for their participation in this initiative. Post-program conversations with participants are a component of our program evaluation strategy, allowing our participants to reflect on their learning and provide us with their critical feedback on our programs.

The IRC promotes its programs as an opportunity to “Learn. Apply. Transform.” We perceive the feedback received from participants as an opportunity for the IRC to learn, apply, and transform. Speaking with participants enables us to learn more about the professional development needs of our client community, reflect on and apply the insights we glean to improve our programming, thereby transforming our programs to better meet the needs of our participants and their sponsor organizations. Suggestions for improving the IRC’s Mastering Fact-Finding and Investigation program included spending more time on role-playing and report writing, through group work and practical exercises. The IRC strives to create an experiential learning experience for our participants. This feedback underscores the perceived value of the hands-on, practical learning that we offer.

Managing Unionized Environments: The Fort McMurray Experience

It is an exciting time at the IRC. Not only are we continuing to expand our programming options, we are also exploring new locations to hold our programs. Most recently, the IRC’s program team headed to Fort McMurray, delivering our Managing Unionized Environments program in October. As the IRC evolves our programming options to best meet the needs of HR, LR, and OD professionals, we also aim to offer programs in locations that are convenient for our participants and their sponsor organizations. The resounding success of the October Managing Unionized Environments has encouraged the IRC to consider offering additional programming options in Fort McMurray during our 2012-2013 program season. Having grown up in Sudbury, Ontario, a mining town, I felt very much at home in Fort McMurray. Conversations that I had with participants during the program were positive; it seems that Fort McMurray is a desirable location for IRC programs moving forward.

The IRC’s Managing Unionized Environments is a unique program because it is not tied to any of our other programming options or certificate series. It brings together supervisors, managers, and union representatives in a three-day program. The program enables opportunities for networking, discussion, and role-play. In addition, practical and relevant materials are provided, including case studies and concrete examples, based on the experiences of subject matter experts, to illustrate the theories presented throughout the program.

While the title of the program is Managing Unionized Environments, the program is not solely restricted to unionized environments; it applies to managers in all sectors and industries, as it focuses on developing a broad range of skills. Performance management is, for example, one of the topics addressed in the program. How do you, as a manager, effectively measure your employees’ performance? Setting measurable learning objectives and outcomes, providing feedback to employees, communicating change, and disciplinary actions are themes covered throughout the program.


Education Labour Relations In Ontario

The labour relations environment in Ontario’s education sector 1 is both fascinating and dynamic. The late 1970s and 1980s marked a period of relative stability. Conversely, the 1990s were marked by turnover in provincial government, legislatives changes, new policy initiatives, and labour disputes. Not surprisingly, these phenomena dramatically impacted the working relationships between teachers, school administrators, 2 school board staff, educational support workers, and school trustees. A series of new initiatives in the past decade reduced the incidence of labour disruptions significantly and provided some stability, and there is still progress to be made. What is apparent amidst this contextual background is the importance of labour relations to the education sector. Accordingly, this report outlines the key components of the IRC’s Education-Labour Relations in Ontario research initiative.

Included in this report is a summary of research activities, an overview of key areas of inquiry, and an initial discussion of customized professional development for education sector practitioners. The aims of this initiative are threefold. The first aim is to better understand the impacts of systemic and structural factors on labour relations. These factors include collective bargaining practices, policy changes, and labour markets for teachers, school administrators, and support workers. The second aim is to gain insight into the particularities of the labour relations environments in individual schools and school boards, thereby enabling a better understanding of the interplay between systemic and structural factors and those factors that are more localized, producing unique labour relations environments with their own successes and challenges. The third aim is to develop labour relations courses that are customized to meet the professional development needs of a variety of practitioners in the education sector.

Research Activities

Between September 2010 and July 2011, research was conducted with a variety of education sector stakeholders. Information was collected through a number of means, including:

  • Consultations with Ministerial Groups;
  • Interviews and Focus Groups;
  • Participation of Education Sector Stakeholders in IRC Programs; and
  • Province-Wide Surveys of Education Sector Stakeholders.

Consultations with Ministerial Groups. There are a number of groups who consult regularly at the provincial Ministry of Education. These groups include the Council of Directors of Education (CODE), the Minister’s Principals Reference Group (MPRG), the Support Workers Advisory Group (SWAG), and the Tripartite Teacher Advisory Committee (TTAC). Each group meets in person or via conference call four to six times a year to promote ongoing dialogue related to the success of Ontario’s schools. The importance of developing and fostering effective working relationships between stakeholders is a regular subject of discussion at these consultations.

The first stage of the IRC’s research project involved attending and participating in these consultation group meetings. Attendance and participation was useful for a number of reasons. First, it provided opportunities to engage with stakeholders and learn more about the labour relations climate in the education sector. Second, these consultations acted as a mechanism to introduce the agenda and aims of the project to stakeholders in order to solicit their feedback. This dialogue was critical during the development of surveys. Third, and most importantly, it offered opportunities to network and recruit participants for interviews, focus groups, and subsidized participation in IRC programming. Consultation with these groups is ongoing, and provides an important mechanism for feedback regarding the progress of the research initiative.

Interviews and Focus Groups. The second stage of the project involved conducting interviews and focus groups with a variety of stakeholders. Interview and focus group participants include school administrators (e.g. principals and vice-principals), representatives of teachers’ and support workers’ unions, and school board directors, human resource superintendents, and human resource managers. Interviews and focus groups were conducted throughout Ontario in both English and French. Most sessions were conversational, semi-structured, and open-ended. Most focused upon topics, such as the impact of provincial discussion table agreements, the recruitment and retention of education workers and administrators, policy and legislative changes, the political environment, and opportunities for professional development. Although interviews and focus groups are ongoing, a large proportion occurred between November 2010 and March 2011.

Participation of Education Sector Stakeholders in IRC Programs. The third stage of the project involved recruiting education sector labour relations practitioners to attend IRC programs. The purpose of this recruitment was twofold: to introduce stakeholders to the structure, philosophy, and content of programs offered by the IRC, and to determine how to develop programs that best meet the needs of education sector stakeholders. Nearly 20 individuals with a direct role in education sector labour relations attended programs, such as Labour Relations Foundations, Negotiation Skills, Dispute Resolution Skills, and Managing Unionized Environments. Participants were extremely receptive to the IRC-style of professional development, and generally anticipated that the pedagogy and content can be customized to meet the needs of the education sector. This stage is also ongoing, and the IRC welcomes the participation of a number of education sector stakeholders in its upcoming programs listed in the Fall 2011 – Spring 2012 Program Planner.

Province-Wide Surveys of Education Sector Stakeholders. The fourth stage of the project involved developing and delivering surveys to four key groups of education sector labour relations practitioners: school administrators, school board human resources personnel, teachers’ union representatives, and support workers’ union representatives. The surveys focused on three key topics: labour relations, dispute resolution and conflict management, and opportunities for labour relations-focused professional development. Interview participants and the representatives of Ministerial consultation groups provided very helpful feedback during the development stage of these surveys. Surveys were launched online in May 2011. Complete results and analysis are expected in November 2011.

Areas of Inquiry

The initial results of our research have identified four main areas of inquiry that are likely to be of interest to academics, educators, and labour relations practitioners alike. Areas of inquiry include:

  • The Impact of Provincial Discussion Table Agreements;
  • The Roles and Responsibilities of School Administrators;
  • Labour Relations and Educational Support Workers; and
  • Teachers and the Labour Market.

A summary of the data collected pertaining to these areas of inquiry is discussed in some detail below. However, a number of other aspects of labour relations are important to the education sector, and may ultimately be included in this research initiative, reflecting the multi-faceted and dynamic nature of education sector labour relations.

The Impact of Provincial Discussion Table Agreements

In the late 1990s, Ontario’s education sector experienced major restructuring. Two specific changes are particularly noteworthy. First, the number of school boards was reduced from 124 to 72 through amalgamation. Although this reduction seems drastic to some, if follows a decades-long trend towards fewer, larger boards. To put things in perspective, the number of school boards in Ontario was reduced from 3,676 in 1960 to 1,673 in 1965, and subsequently to 186 by 1969. i. Second, the provincial Ministry of Education assumed control of funding for schools. Prior to this, individual boards could increase funding through a local property tax levy. This taxation was done to ensure equality in the funding of schools across the province and to increase government control over education sector budgets.

Around the time of these changes, labour disputes in education were common, if not abnormally high. There have been very few strikes or lockouts in the past eight years, in part due to the recognition by all stakeholders that such disruptions are costly and undesirable and that working relations should be prioritized. The same time period is also witness to a new and evolving system of collective bargaining that began in 2005.

During collective bargaining between public school boards and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) and the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in 2005, negotiators were tasked with incorporating new provincial funding and staffing policies (among other things) into agreements that were previously determined on a board-by-board basis. In order to help reach agreement on certain issues, former Minister of Education, Gerard Kennedy, introduced the idea of framework agreements. Under this system, a master collective agreement that outlined key issues related to funding was negotiated provincially. Individual school boards and teacher bargaining units were responsible for negotiating local issues and ratifying the framework agreements in a manner that fit their specific context.

In 2008, provincial framework agreements were negotiated with all four teachers unions (including the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and the Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-Ontarien). Support workers’ unions also took part in provincial discussion table negotiations. School trustees’ associations played a key role as the provincial representative of school boards during these negotiations.

Unlike the 2005 negotiations, which began partway through collective bargaining, the 2008 process was more formalized and replete with deadlines and incentives. The most significant of these was an August 31st deadline for agreement on key issues, by which school boards would receive enough funding to provide wage increases of 12.5% over the next four years and significant funding increases per student. This deadline was subsequently extended to November 30th to ensure that agreements could be ratified locally. Catholic and French teachers’ unions and their respective boards met this deadline as did support workers’ unions. OSSTF teachers and their respective boards did not agree in principle to the framework until November 30th, and were given an extension in order to ratify the agreements locally. ETFO teachers, who sought wage parity with OSSTF, did not reach an agreement with their respective boards until February 2009. They were provided with a reduced funding package that provided for 10.5% wage increases over four years. This has been a major source of contention.

Although the provincial discussion table negotiations were subject to some criticism, most education sector stakeholders perceived them to be valuable. The negotiation processes and the ultimate terms and conditions of the framework agreements have a number of noticeable impacts on the working relationships between school boards, school administrators, teachers, and support workers. The non-exhaustive list below introduces a number of these impacts.

Prioritization of Provincial Actors. Provincial funding mechanisms reduced the autonomy of school boards and other local stakeholders, particularly as it pertains to financial matters. Two general opinions are related to this incidence. First, if complex and often contentious matters related to wages and finances are left to provincial actors, more time and resources are thus available to local negotiators who can focus on resolving local issues. Second, there is an opinion that regardless of structure, negotiations and decision-making are best done by those with the power to ratify collective agreements. The latter issue is problematic because of a mismatch in the authority wielded by school board and teachers’ union negotiators. By statute, the provincial representatives of teachers’ unions have the authority to sign a collective agreement with an individual school board. Teachers’ and support workers’ unions also tend to have well-defined hierarchies. Conversely, school boards lack formal provincial representation. Representatives of school trustees’ associations may speak on their behalf at provincial discussion tables, often to the ire of teachers’ unions. This arises because trustees are publicly elected and thus political agents, and have no authority to sign a collective agreement. This mismatch has led to some contention between parties and unwillingness to recognize trustees and trustees’ associations as legitimate participants in the process of negotiations.

Interpretation and Relevance of Collective Agreements. The prioritization of provincial actors also impacts the day-to-day relationships between teachers and educational support workers, their unions, and school boards. For example, local actors – those who actually administer the agreements – may misinterpret the intent or language in agreements negotiated provincially. These challenges are consistent with the aforementioned apprehension of some actors to ratify an agreement that was not negotiated by those with the authority to sign them, or by those who are not responsible for working through the challenges that arise in administering such an agreement on a day-to-day basis.

There are also challenges administering a one-size-fits-all agreement in a multitude of contexts. Despite a relatively equitable system of per student funding, some school boards face wildly different logistical and operational challenges. That challenges arise from interpreting and administering framework agreements across boards of different sizes and enrolment levels, and in regions that vary in their population densities and socio-economic context is not surprising. Ensuring adequate room to manoeuvre within those contexts, while maintaining accordance with collective agreements, remains a priority for school boards and unions throughout the province.

Proportional rather than Absolute Salary Increases. Much of the restructuring of education policy in Ontario since the late 1990s was done in order to equalize the amount of per student funding. These funding levels are based on absolute figures. On the other hand, the salary increases of teachers under provincial framework agreements are based on proportional increases. Unlike an absolute increase in salary (e.g. $2,000/year), proportional increases (e.g. 3%/year) privilege teachers in boards whose salary grids were higher under the previously localized systems of collective bargaining. Such a system actually exacerbates existing wage differentials. It is also contentious considering that ETFO teachers received proportional increases lower than their counterparts in the three other teachers’ unions in the last round of negotiations. While some effort has been made to address these differentials, they are likely to be prominent on the bargaining agenda of teachers in 2012.

Length and Scope of Collective Agreements. The provincial framework agreements negotiated in 2005 and 2008 are reasonably long in duration. This length, combined with the centralization of funding and control over financial aspects of education, led to noticeable changes in the interaction of union representatives and school board human resources personnel. Many interview participants noted that since financial matters are of less consequence to labour relations at the board level, they could focus more time on administering the ‘operational’ aspects of collective agreements. Terms and conditions related to matters such as staffing and supervision time were often noted to be those that were the subject of frequent discussion. On one hand, these long-term agreements can allow board-union relationships to mature by fostering an environment where parties engage in dialogue and develop trust in order to address matters in a mutually satisfactory manner. On the other hand, especially in cases where challenges in the working relationships between school boards and union representatives exist (for whatever reason) and trust is at a premium, parties may use this time to dispute interpretations of terms and conditions outlined in collective agreements to achieve zero-sum gains. This is another reason why it is necessary to develop and foster trust in systems, processes, and relationships in the education sector.

A recent study of the emergence and impacts of the provincial discussion table agreements ventures some predictions of the future of education sector bargaining in Ontario. ii. This study points to three conclusions. First, centralization has been driven by successive provincial governments since 1998 in order to assert greater control over education policy, budgets, and collective bargaining outcomes. This shifted key decision-making power away from school boards and towards the Ministry of Education. Second, provincial discussion table negotiations remain dynamic and unstable. The processes of education sector bargaining have evolved, but have not been institutionalized to the same degree as policy and funding. It is likely that the centralization of education sector collective bargaining will continue to some degree, and it is not yet apparent what form they will take or which parties will drive or resist centralization. Third, the perspectives of education sector stakeholders towards the processes and outcomes of provincial discussion table negotiations and framework agreements are decidedly mixed. Centralization has led to increases in student funding and wages at the expense of local autonomy. One point of uncertainty is whether or not provincial discussion table negotiations can evolve and succeed in the absence of significant funding increases.

The Roles and Responsibilities of School Administrators

In 1998, the Ontario Labour Relations Act replaced the Education Act as the default legislation governing teachers and school administrators in Ontario. As a consequence, the managerial roles of school administrators became more prominent and principals and vice-principals were removed from the bargaining units of teachers’ unions. Many principals interviewed felt that this move was designed to ‘draw lines in the sand’ and ensure that administrators prioritized their managerial role over their collegial and educational responsibilities. Viewed from a different perspective, these changes simply reinforced practice and went one step further in formalizing the increasingly important and nodal function of school administrators. In so doing, principals and vice-principals were pulled in multiple directions in order to simultaneously satisfy the interests of school boards, the Ministry of Education, and their teacher colleagues.

A 2001 report by Tom Williams warned of an impending shortage of school administrators. iii. The report found that by 2009, over 80% of Ontario’s principals and vice-principals will reach retirement age. Moreover, it noted evidence of fewer candidates for administrative positions than in the past and far too little succession planning by school boards. At the time, this report was consistent with other projections of shortages of educational workers in Ontario, particularly teachers. And while the supply of qualified teachers currently outpaces demand (for a number of reasons discussed later in this report), acute shortages of administrators remains a challenge for boards across Ontario. Considering the critical logistical, managerial, leadership, and educational responsibilities of principals and vice-principals, as well as their focal role in the relationships between school boards, teachers, support workers, students, parents, and the community, the recruitment and retention of school administrators is extremely important to both this research initiative and the success of Ontario’s education sector.

The IRC’s Education-Labour Relations research initiative identifies a number of reasons for the shortage of administrators. These are discussed below in no particular order. They are in many ways consistent with the deterrents and dissatisfiers identified by Williams 10 years ago.

Relative Salary Increases. The salaries of principals and vice-principals, when compared to those in the broader public and private sectors, are generally competitive. However, relative to the salaries of teachers with ten or more years of experience in a given board, they are only slightly higher when time spent working is considered. One unintended consequence of this may be that more experienced teachers are deterred from applying for administrative positions (as they will see only a marginal increase in their salary), while less experienced teachers – who are in line for a significant increase in salary if they take on an administrative position – have a greater financial incentive to do so.

Time. Not surprisingly, the number of hours worked deters teachers from applying for administrative positions. It is also one of the most common dissatisfiers among those currently working as principals and vice-principals. The difference in time spent at work for principals and vice-principals includes both additional hours at work during the regular school year, as well as more time spent working during the summer months.

Responsibilities. In addition to an increasingly complex set of responsibilities to a variety of stakeholders, the day-to-day operation of schools is ultimately the responsibility of principals. This responsibility includes the ongoing implementation of Ministerial initiatives and an awareness of changes to legislation that affect the workplace (e.g. Bill 168). Many of these activities are solely the responsibility of principals, while others are assumed by principals due to staff illnesses, absenteeism, shortages, and grievances. These additional responsibilities contribute to the complexity and stress of the role of school administrators, and are both a significant deterrent and dissatisfier.

Collegiality and Representation. The restructuring that took place in the late 1990s marks a significant turning point in the occupational histories of many experienced teachers, support workers, and school administrators. The decision to remove principals and vice-principals from teacher bargaining units in 1998 impacted the role of school administrators significantly. According to many, one of the immediate impacts of this change was a reduction in collegiality between administrators and teachers. Many experienced principals lament this decision. They also look back fondly on the period prior to 1998, when they felt that their role was closer to that of an educator than a manager. In fact, many discussed how prior to 1998, it was common for principals to assume key roles in their respective teachers’ federations. The removal of administrators from teacher bargaining units comprised a significant deterrent and dissatisfier at the time of Williams’ report, and remains so today.

A vacuum, of sorts, was left when administrators were removed from teacher bargaining units. This has been filled to some degree by the three principals’ councils: the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO), and the Association des directeurs and directeurs-adjoint de l’Ontario (ADFO). The managerial responsibilities of school administrators impede representation by traditional trade unions. It is not widely agreed that this style of representation would best meet the needs of principals. Instead, the principals’ councils seek and develop new and innovative ways to represent the interests of school administrators through alternative means. They also play a key role in training and professional development for school administrators in Ontario and elsewhere.

Job Security. While teachers – particularly those with five or more years of experience – enjoy a high amount of job security and accrued seniority benefits, school administrators are not protected by collective agreements. However, the tight market for administrators counters this to some degree. What is more consequential – and a common deterrent for teachers considering administrative roles – is that few mechanisms are available for principals and vice-principals to return to teaching (with accrued seniority and benefits) if they so desire. This reality is currently a subject of discussion in many boards and the principals’ councils, but there does not appear to be any consistent policies or practices across the province.

Ministerial Initiatives. Ontario’s school administrators may be required to implement more than 50 new initiatives and directives on an annual basis. These initiatives may be related to major changes to the structure of education (e.g. all-day Kindergarten), changes to employment legislation (e.g. Bill 168), or policies related to multi-culturalism and anti-discrimination (e.g. anti-homophobia clubs). Few administrators had major philosophical or substantive opposition to such initiatives. What was more concerning to them was the amount of time and resources that they are required to expend so that these initiatives are implemented thoroughly and efficiently. School administrators regularly noted the stress experienced trying to balance their responsibilities to teachers, support workers, and students in their schools, while concomitantly fulfilling their responsibilities to the Ministry of Education.

As teacher and support worker labour relations stabilize to some degree, the role and relationships of school administrators are becoming more complex. Whether or not this stability has merely come at the expense of administrators, it is imperative to recognize the importance of ensuring that administrators are well-trained, confident in their roles, and able to manage their schools and the relationships within in a manner that satisfies the interests of the multitude of stakeholders who depend on them. For these reasons, and others, the roles and responsibilities of school administrators have been identified as a particularly important component of the IRC’s research initiative.

The importance of teachers and their working relationships has been the focus of a significant amount of past research, and rightly so. The role of support workers and the importance of their working relationships to Ontario’s education sector has received little attention from labour relations and human resource management researchers. The majority of support workers belong to unions and are party to collective agreements negotiated at provincial discussion tables in 2008. This step was significant in recognizing the value of support workers to the success of Ontario’s education sector. Also significant is the fact that based on total head count (rather than full-time equivalencies), the number of educational workers in Ontario who are not full-time teachers or school administrators recently surpassed the number of those who are. iv.


This IRC research initiative provides an excellent opportunity to break new ground through the analysis of the contemporary role of educational support workers. One particular goal of this initiative is to better understand and communicate the value of working relationships between support workers and other education sector stakeholders. This enhanced communication will be done through publications and customized professional development. Generally speaking, this report identifies three key aspects of the role of support workers and their working relationships. These are discussed in detail below.

Support Workers, Principals, and Supervisors. The direct supervisor of many support workers is the principal in their schools. The working relationships of principals and support workers are generally good, as most principals recognize the importance of support workers to the operation of their schools. Principals, however, are almost exclusively trained first and foremost as teachers, and are not necessarily expert in any of the specialized roles performed by support workers. One common trait of principals that maintain good working relationships with support workers is that they are well aware that the function of support workers is distinct from – but no more or less important – than that of teachers. They also recognize that the terms and conditions of support workers’ collective agreements are equally different.

In other cases, support workers report directly to a supervisor at the school board, and are overseen on a more regular basis by the principal(s) at the school(s) where they work. This dynamic is interesting. Support workers and board-level supervisors often enjoy a relationship based on their mutual expertise and professional knowledge, while their relationships with principals are based on regular interaction in the context of an individualized school or worksite.

Support Workers and Teachers. These relationships are often complex. As mentioned, most support workers report directly to principals and board-level supervisors. In only very few situations is a teacher the direct supervisor – or boss – of a support worker. However, the reality is that a good deal of educational work is organized in a manner that places certain segments of support workers (e.g. educational assistants, early childhood educators) into complex and ambiguous relationships with teachers. Perhaps the most glaring of these situations is the fact that many support workers perform their duties in a classroom or space that ‘belongs’ to an individual teacher, or that their duties are based on the recommendations of one or more teachers. These complexities are being brought to the forefront, considering the emphasis on differentiated learning and all-day kindergarten. One of the focal points of this IRC initiative is to help understand what factors need to be present to ensure that the working relationships between teachers and support workers are conducive to safe and effective learning and working environments.

Collective Bargaining and Support Workers. The inclusion of support workers in the 2008 provincial discussion table negotiations is of great interest to those involved in this IRC research initiative. During these negotiations, support workers’ union representative negotiated at one of three discussion tables: one for CUPE locals, one for OSSTF support worker locals, and another that was comprised of locals from a number of other unions. vi. Negotiations with support workers went quite well, especially considering the variety of interests of the diverse group of stakeholders in attendance. Although the terms and conditions for support workers persistently varied on factors, such as occupation, board, and region, most made significant gains in material and working conditions through the provincial discussion tables. Many expect a similar – if not evolved – process of bargaining in upcoming negotiations. It is at present unclear, however, whether this style of negotiations will occurs, and if it does, whether it will be based on one central table, or on occupation, union, or some other criteria.

Teachers and the Labour Market

Only ten years ago, it was expected that Ontario would face massive shortages of teachers. These shortages were not realized to their predicted extent. In fact, there is now a massive surplus of qualified teachers in Ontario. School boards regularly report receiving over 100 applications for every permanent teaching position posted. Moreover, the ‘supply lists,’ or rosters of occasional teachers – both short – and long-term – have ballooned. There are a number of reasons for the surplus of teachers, as discussed below.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Benefits. Teaching offers intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that are increasingly scarce in today’s labour market. This scenario is especially the case for younger workers. Competitive salaries and benefits, a well-funded pension, job security, ample vacation time, and the opportunity to engage in the fascinating and rewarding endeavour of being party to the mental, social, and physical development of future generations. Is it any surprise then, that teaching is an increasingly desirable line of work, especially considering the decline in traditional manufacturing sector jobs and the increase in precarious, impermanent, and non-standard forms of employment in many facets of the economy.

Delayed Retirement. The projected shortages of teachers had much to do with the expectation that a large proportion of education sector workers would retire by 2010. Similar to many other occupations, many of Ontario’s teachers choose to work beyond the age of 65. Three factors have contributed to this. First, the elimination of mandatory retirement in Ontario. Second, the improved health and life expectancy of Canadian adults. Third, the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 reduced the values of the pensions and savings of many who had hoped to retire in the recent past. The combination of these factors results in fewer retirements and fewer opportunities for recent graduates of Bachelor of Education programs. It is also likely to result in a ‘logjam’ of job seekers in the event that teachers retire en masse. In other words, it may be some time before the number of qualified applicants is equal, or close, to the number of teaching positions available.

Internationally-Trained Canadian Teachers. Over a decade ago, Faculties of Education from a number of English-speaking countries began actively recruiting undergraduate students from Ontario. This recruitment occurred in response to the projected shortage of teachers and the limited space available in the Faculties of Education at Ontario universities. The majority of Ontario’s teachers trained outside the province are graduates of Faculties of Education in New York. Most of the remainder of teachers graduated from post-secondary institutions in other bordering states (e.g. Michigan), Commonwealth countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand), and the Republic of Ireland. Tuition at these institutions is generally higher than tuition in Ontario, and admission requirements are generally lower. The training provided is accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers. In some cases, these students may even be able to undertake the placement component of their training in Ontario. It is expected that some thought will be given to this arrangement in the near future, in light of the current labour market situation.

Declining Enrolment. The number of school-aged children has declined alongside domestic birth rates in Ontario. For many school boards, the means a reduced demand for spaces in local schools. Declining enrolment is particularly the case in regions experiencing general population decline. Even in some of Ontario’s most prosperous urban areas (e.g. Toronto), high schools operate well under their capacity and school closures are common. Accordingly, the demand for teachers has decreased in the short-term.

Expectations and Demographics of the New ‘Class’ of Teachers. Ontario’s school-aged populations are among the most culturally diverse in the world. Yet the predominant demographic graduating from Ontario Faculties of Education and pursuing teaching positions are upper-middle class, Canadian-born students. This demographic is partly related to the socio-economic reality of post-secondary education in Canada and the extremely competitive admission requirements of Ontario’s Faculties of Education. It may also – as some studies suggest – be related to the notion that recent and first generation immigrants to Canada do not perceive teaching to be a profession that leads to economic prosperity. vii. Recent graduates of Faculties of Education in Ontario hail increasingly from upper-middle class backgrounds. In the opinion of many interview and focus group participants, it is unlikely that they will expect a material standard of living that is lower than that which they and their families are accustomed. This salary expectation may present challenges in future rounds of collective bargaining, especially if Ontario experiences economic recession and reductions to public spending.

The impact of the current labour market challenges for teachers on working relationships and collective bargaining are as of yet unclear. In many cases, school boards are offered the ‘pick of the litter’ when posting teaching jobs, which can lead to optimal experiences for students. Yet the highly competitive labour market for teachers may prove problematic for the thousands of qualified teachers currently underemployed. It is also likely to prove challenging for school board and union negotiators tasked with maintaining the working conditions and relationships that currently make teaching in Ontario’s public education sector so desirable.

Customized Professional Development for Ontario’s Education Sector

A number of aspects of education labour relations can be effectively addressed through customized professional development. These courses build upon the existing expertise of IRC staff and program facilitators, in a way that focuses on the specific context of education sector labour relations. Two primary audiences have been identified: 1) school administrators and 2) board-level labour relations practitioners (e.g. human resource managers, full-time district- or unit-level union representatives). It is likely that the scope of education-specific professional development will expand in the future, and these audiences have been identified as those that may benefit most from customized courses and workshops. Two streams of programs will be available for school administrators: one for those with less than three years of experience as an administrator, and another for more experienced administrators. The former may focus on aspects of labour relations, such as dispute resolution skills, managing competing and complementary interests, managerial responsibilities in the context of Ontario employment legislation, communication skills, and training in interpreting and understanding the ‘hot spots’ of collective agreements. In addition to some of the content outline above, programs for more experienced school administrators may focus on advanced labour relations skills such as fact-finding and investigation, performance management, and progressive discipline.

Courses for board-level labour relations practitioners are expected to include both board and union representatives. These courses may focus on developing skills related to negotiations, dispute resolution and conflict management, and team-building. This is done in a manner that promotes participation and cooperation from both union and management, in order that both parties learn to approach challenges in partnership and with mutual interests in mind.

Pilot courses are expected to be launched early in 2012. These courses tend to run for a minimum of two days and may be offered in Kingston, Toronto, or any region of Ontario where there is adequate interest. Subsidies may be available. Interested school board personnel and union representatives should contact Queen’s IRC for more information.

Summary and Future Research

This report summarized the research activities and areas of inquiry related to the IRC’s education labour relations initiative. It also introduced the initial development of labour relations-focused courses for education sector practitioners. It is also important to recognize that education sector labour relations are dynamic and that many aspects of an evolving system of collective bargaining are not institutionalized to any great degree. Recent calls for budgetary restraint, debates over public sector labour relations, and the general political climate do little to stabilize or institutionalize the labour relations environment in Ontario’s education sector and beyond. Yet regardless of the results of the provincial election and the policies pursued by future provincial governments, there is little question that education labour relations are a fascinating subject of research and that efforts to foster good working relationships between education sector stakeholders are worthwhile.

1. The education sector refers to publicly-funded K-12 schools in Ontario.

2. The term ‘school administrators’ refers to and is interchangeable with elementary and secondary school Principals and Vice-Principals.

3. Accurate data were not available for 2009.


i. Downie, B. (1992) Strikes, Disputes, and Policy-Making: Resolving Impasses in Ontario Education. Kingston: IRC Press.

ii. Sweeney, B., S. McWilliams, and R. Hickey (2011) The Centralization of Collective Bargaining in Ontario’s Public Education Sector and the Need to Balance Stakeholder Interests. In A. Sweetman and S. Slinn (eds). Dynamic Negotiations: Teacher Labour Relations in Canadian Elementary and Secondary Schools. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

iii. Williams, T. (2001) Unrecognized Exodus, Unaccepted Accountability. Toronto: Ontario Principals’ Council.

iv. These data reflect the total head count of public education employees. They do not reflect full-time equivalencies. The majority of full-time teachers are employed on a 1.0 full-time equivalent basis. Many support workers and occasional teachers are employed on a full-time equivalency of less than 1.0. This should be given consideration when analyzing these statistics.

v. Sources: Statistics Canada, CANSIM TABLE 281-0024; Ontario Ministry of Education Quick Facts, 1998-2008, 2009-2010. The category ‘Teachers’ does not include occasional teachers. The category ‘All Other Public Education Employees’ includes educational support workers, occasional teachers, hourly-paid school board employees, and salaried school board employees.

vi. These included the other teachers’ unions, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, and a number of private sector (e.g. CAW, USW), trade (e.g. Boilermakers), and independent (e.g. Association of Professional Student Services Personnel) unions.

vii. See Grimmett, P and F. Echols (2002) Teacher and Administrator Shortages in Changing Times. Canadian Journal of Education 25(4): 328-343; Schmidt, C. (2010) Moving from the Personal to the Political in IET Scholarship. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 100: 1-4.

Ontario experts pessimistic about the future: Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast

Last year, OPSEU brought together business, labour, government, and community agencies for an in-depth exploration of the possible futures for Ontario with Ontario 2020. The Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast has now been released, which shows that experts are concerned and pessimistic about the future of the province.

Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper was a member of the steering committee for the Ontario 2020 project, which included a two-day conference in Toronto. Experts in four areas – community services, the economy, education and health care – were invited to evaluate how the province will develop in the next decade. Four possible scenarios of the future were assessed for each of the key areas.

The practical objective of the Ontario 2020 project was to make Ontario organizations more effective by focusing on the need to anticipate a wholly different province in 2020. The steering committee was founded by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. Thomas said it’s important to stop the finger-pointing and blame over the past, and focus on the challenges and opportunities in the future. “No one else is doing this important work. To succeed as organizations and a province we must begin to take it on.”

One of the panelists summed up their view of Ontario in 2020: “I believe that we can imagine a great future, but many are pessimistic about what lies before us.”


Managing Unionized Environments: Post-Program Perspectives

Following the IRC’s inaugural Managing Unionized Environments (MUE) program, I conducted brief interviews with a small sample of participants. The purpose of these conversations was to glean the participants’ feedback on this new program offering and to discern the extent to which the programming met the expectations of the participants. In addition to speaking directly with participants, I also held conversations with Stephanie Noel, the IRC’s Business Development Manager, and Gary Furlong, facilitator for the MUE program. This article provides an overview of the MUE program, based on the perspectives of the individuals with whom I spoke.

MUE Program Development

The catalyst for the development and successful launch of the MUE program lies in the many conversations IRC representative, Stephanie Noel, has held with participants. Stephanie attends many of the IRC’s programs; you’ve likely seen her in the room or at the social events planned to celebrate the learning that takes place in the programming. With each program season, Stephanie realized that there was a gap in the labour relations (LR) training and learning offered by the IRC. “During our programming I’ve heard HR and LR managers express a need for frontline supervisors and their union counterparts to gain education, training, and learning around the collective agreement,” said Stephanie.

IRC facilitator Gary Furlong has been offering similar programs to organizations in-house. The IRC’s MUE program takes a different approach. Rather than targeting the specific concerns of one organization, the MUE has as its goal a holistic understanding of the collective bargaining agreements and associated processes. A diverse array of industries, such as the steel and education sectors, was represented in the inaugural MUE program. These varied perspectives enabled interesting conversations in the classroom. It soon became evident that while the industries differed, there was a commonality in the problems facing organizations. Thus, it seems that the IRC’s MUE programming is applicable across organizations and industry sectors.

According to Gary, “it is very typical that organizations may promote supervisors or managers, without providing them with a solid knowledge of the collective agreement.” In some cases, individuals are promoted from within the organization, but it is likely that the individuals come from outside the organization. The assumption is that managers know how to manage unions. Tension arises between unions and management when managers violate the collective agreement, or demonstrate an inability to effectively manage the collective agreement.

The IRC’s MUE program has both broad and specific aims. Broadly, the program provides participants with an understanding of the collective agreement framework. More specifically, the program addresses problem areas, such as management rights and grievances. The program is designed to give participants the tools to hold constructive conversations with unions, and to perceive the collective agreement as a resource, rather than a source of conflict. According to Stephanie, “the MUE program provides its participants with concrete skills in an experiential learning environment. Examples of learning outcomes include: identifying and addressing hot spots of the collective agreement, employing appropriate processes and approaches to support the collective agreement, and setting expectations to build trust with management and motivate workers.”

The MUE program is uniquely designed to bring together senior leaders and union stewards, where both parties can collaboratively learn the essentials of collective bargaining agreements. This joint-training approach considers the roles and responsibilities of both management and union representatives in the collective bargaining process. The program focuses on frontline supervisors and builds their capacity to effectively manage in a unionized environment.

The MUE program is also unique to the IRC’s professional development portfolio. Indeed, the program does strongly adhere to adult learning principles, and provides opportunities for participants to apply their learning to practical exercises. The program, however, is not part of the labour relations certificate series. It is currently offered as a three-day special interest program.

Participant Perspectives

Both Stephanie and Gary were pleased, but not surprised, with the positive anecdotal feedback received from participants throughout the program. Post-program conversations with two participants echoed the sentiments expressed during the programming. These conversations revealed an overall favourable perception of the program, and especially the ways in which the programming is directly applicable to the work that participants do in their organizations. Below, I summarize conversations with Serge Larre and Scott Sincerbox.

Serge Larre

Serge Larre is a Federation Officer with the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO). Serge has over ten years of experience in union work. As such, he was already familiar with much of the material presented in the MUE program. Since the IRC’s MUE program is offered in English only, Serge took it upon himself to translate some of the IRC’s material into French for use in his organization. Accordingly, it seems clear that Serge deems the IRC’s material engaging and directly relevant to his work.

Serge praised Gary’s facilitation skills. “Gary is very good and is an asset to the IRC,” said Serge. “He is knowledgeable and gives good suggestions for solutions to problems.” Serge also appreciated the fact that both union and management were in the room. He said that the program met his expectations. “The MUE program is great!”

Scott Sincerbox

Scott Sincerbox, Superintendent of Human Resources, with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board also participated in the April 2011 MUE program. In our conversation, Scott spoke about the quality of the learning he received throughout the program. Like Serge, he was particularly impressed with facilitator Gary Furlong’s breadth of knowledge and expertise. In addition to the specific knowledge acquired, such as a better understanding of the union perspective around contentious issues, and collective agreements, Scott commented on the diverse aggregation of sectors represented in the program. Similar to Serge, this diversity, according to Scott, enhanced his learning experience.

Further, Scott commented that the program has instilled in him an excitement about and desire to continue learning on the job. Recently Scott was a guest instructor at a course for principal candidates. In preparing for his discussion on labour relations type topics, Scott relied heavily on the IRC’s MUE program materials. For Scott, this reliance was a definitive exemplification of the applicability of the material delivered in the IRC’s programming. Scott talked about the ways in which the IRC’s programming met his expectations: “The theory is terrific. The discussions are great. The IRC’s programming was exactly what I was looking for and has pointed me in the direction that I want to go. I am anxious to take additional IRC’s programs, such as negotiation skills. I think the MUE program was beneficial not only for my own learning, but will complement my team learning in my organization.”

Future MUE Programming

Ongoing feedback from participants is invaluable to help the IRC with designing and delivering programming that meets the needs of our clients. My conversations with two participants elicited some recommendations on the ways in which the IRC can enhance its MUE programming. According to the participants with whom I spoke, putting more emphasis on specific skills and adding to the number of practical cases already addressed in the course were suggestions for consideration. Experiential learning is a key component of the IRC’s programming; we want to ensure that participants have the time they need to put theory into practice. These recommendations will be considered when developing the curriculum for future MUE programming.

The Peer Circle: Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

Jean passed the talking piece to Kimberly. You could see her shoulders straighten, a deep intake of breath, a glance around the circle of her assembled colleagues. She was steeling herself to say what was difficult but necessary. Kimberly explained that, for her, the constant putting down of customers and negativity around workplace conditions was unacceptable and made it difficult to enjoy and take pride in her work. She asked that the team demonstrate professionalism toward clients and respect the fact that everyone ought to be able to come to work and expect a reasonably supportive environment.

Kimberly spoke to the middle of the Circle; a message not “pointed at” anyone but offered as her honest experience and request. As the talking piece moved around the room people, contributed their thoughts. Jim said that, while he appreciated Kimberly’s point of view, he felt that there were legitimate concerns about how the workplace was being managed and about the tools that were being provided to do the work. It was important to him that he be able to criticize some of the choices being made without being labeled a malcontent.

The Challenge

Protracted group conflict within a workplace is among the more daunting challenges that HR and conflict management professionals face. A peer or corporate circle is a creative response to conflicts that are driven largely by historic relationship and values differences. In this instance, the work group had a long history of conflict that was multiply determined. A number of conventional approaches had been employed with limited success.

Our firm was brought in to consult around an “out of the box” approach. We recommended a peer circle be convened based on the following observations:

  • Management identified a significant minority of disaffected people that was exerting a negative influence on others.
  • The issues were not limited to discrete relationships but represented cleavages among staff.
  • There was thought to be a restless “silent majority” whose interests were not being served by the status quo,

Assessment and Preparation

Two facilitators (Heather Swartz and I) interviewed each of the 25 staff, supervisors, and manager over the course of two days. From these interviews, we mapped out alliances and conflict contribution systems. Using this data and our impressions of participants’ communication skills and preparedness to take a stake in the outcome, we designed two Peer Circles that were to run for six hours on two consecutive days. We used the day between the interviews and the Circle sessions to determine the seating plans for each of the circles and design the room where the meetings were to be held.

The considerations that went into the seating plan were to:

  • provide support persons near key players (antagonists or protagonists) to encourage them to bring forward their concerns;
  • provide space between allies and enemies such that moderating points of view could be brought to bear, allowing the people most likely to be triggered within the circle to gain insight and perspective; and
  • create an overlap of those persons whose orientation appeared to be unconditionally constructive in both circles to provide a degree of continuity and thematic integrity (values that we felt needed to be nurtured in order to improve things) to the process.

The union — one of the larger ones within the transportation industry — shared management’s concerns about this workplace and was committed to working with them toward an improved environment. The facilitators briefed the Regional Representative about the process and invited him to participate. Because the process was a novel one for this organization, head office sent a senior human resources consultant to the session to participate.

The Circle was designed with facilitators occupying the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and the union representative and HR manager occupying the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. This meant that the conversation could not get too far off track before either the facilitators or HR or union representative had an opportunity to reframe or reorient conversation.

The facilitator located at 12 o’clock was the Host and assumed primary responsibility for the substantive agenda in the form of provocative questions. The Host could modify the questions, skip questions, or introduce new questions as he saw fit based upon where the conversation has been going and the group’s progress in dealing with the issues identified through the interview process.

The 6 o’clock facilitator, called the Guardian, had primary responsibility for the unfolding of the process and managing any impasses or key learnings that were achieved. Guardian used a bell, which she would sound if she wanted something to “sink in” or if things became very emotional, and she wanted to give people an opportunity to reflect before responding. Anyone within the circle could ask for the bell to be sounded; one of the ground rules was that when the bell sounded, there would be 20 seconds of silence observed.

The Process

The Host introduced the Circle process and suggested some ground-rules, adding any that the group wishes. He then opened the circle with an invocation (in this instance, a recorded piece of music). The first question was voiced and the talking piece was passed to one of those sitting next to the Host. Each person was asked to address the question. One was allowed to “pass” on occasion but everyone was encouraged to share their thoughts with the group at least every second time the piece came around. While someone held the talking piece, no one else spoke. This ensured that group members would all have a voice and that issues would be explored rather than debated within the circle.

Early on, the questions and the discussion generated was more at the surface level. As the group became more comfortable with itself, people began to share at a deeper level, and the questions encouraged this. From time to time, people within the circle chose to acknowledge the wisdom or courage that someone demonstrated by what they said. Some asked questions of the group to move the action forward or bring it back to an area that was not explored sufficiently.

The facilitators occasionally took the opportunity to offer the group a story from their experience or a piece of learning that they picked up along the way. Others did the same. The Host or the Guardian took the opportunity to sum up or reframe a comment to either achieving closure on a topic or moving forward the action. Refreshment breaks were provided every 90 minutes or so.

At a certain point, the group demonstrated that it arrived at a degree of consensus. At this point, one of the facilitators framed a decision ask the group if it was ready to move on. A straw poll was taken, and more discussion took place when necessary.

Generally, the process can run anywhere from a few hours to a day or more. In this instance, because it was a 24 / 7 operation, each session ran for about six hours, excluding lunch and breaks.


The process described above was the first in a series. It is a work in progress. A second Circle usually takes place 90 days or so after the first. The manager involved described the impact this way:

One of the biggest improvements is that the quieter staff members are speaking out now. Some employees have embraced the Circle Workshop experience and have followed through on their commitment. But some have not.

A follow-up session is critical…In my honest opinion, there are still a lot of issues between some staff that need to be resolved. In the first session, we only touched the first layer of the cake. I know the objective of the workshop is not to point figures or alienate someone, but people need to be honest if we want to move forward.

The union representative offered this:

I firmly believe the exercise has value and consider the services [of the facilitators] to be to the point and professional. I look forward to round 2 when a review of the impact of the first exercise is fully evaluated and measured.

What We Learned

The workplace is still having trouble. Factions remain. A number of those who were identified by management as disaffected decided to absent themselves from the process. There has been limited or no uptake among them.

It will take a determined effort by management and those who made commitments within the Circle to see the workplace renewed. We expect that, during the subsequent Circle(s), there will be more conversations that are difficult, with the need to confront differences in values and communication styles. The cooperative spirit evident during the circle may or may not take root.

There is now a very clear mandate provided to management by those in attendance that is supportive of more accountability for people’s communications and actions toward one another. The “silent majority” is speaking up more often for what they want and are being supportive of one another. Some of the worst behaviours have stopped or occur less frequently.

Some staff members are struggling with bullying behaviour and petty harassment that is difficult to “pin on” any one person. People are paying a price for the kind of change they want and it is not always pretty to watch. As with any change, there is a period when those who are invested in the status quo will fight to protect it. The Circle made this struggle overt and the conversation about it explicit.

To draw a comparison with a famous scientific experiment involving frogs and hot water, those “in the soup” are now aware of the temperature of the water and are making an effort to moderate the environment so that it can continue to sustain life and provide a degree of satisfaction for everyone. The story continues.

About the Author

Rick Russell, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Rick Russell has been working full time in the dispute resolution field for 23 years, first as the Ombudsman to McMaster University in Hamilton, then as a commercial mediator. In 1993, he co-founded Agree, a full service conflict management firm. Rick has a busy mediation and facilitation practice specializing in commercial, construction and workplace issues, as well as conflict management training, arbitration and partnering. He also works frequently in the area of workplace investigation and fact-finding, workplace assessment and restoration, conflict coaching and advanced conflict management training. Rick serves on the faculty of highly regarded programs at both University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College and Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC). Rick has held leadership positions at the Ontario Bar Association ADR Section, and at the ADR Institute of Ontario. Rick’s speaking, training and facilitation practice includes international engagements in the USA, Barbados and Ethiopia. A graduate of McMaster University (History) and the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law, Rick is an avid hiker, canoeist, nature photographer and writer. He lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife Margaret and their four sons.

Cultivating Effective Management-Union Relationships in the Unionized Workplace

In almost all organizations today, both public and private sector, managers are looking to deliver better results and greater productivity. And within these same organizations, the union is often seen as a barrier to management effectively achieving these goals. From the union’s point of view, management views the collective agreement as an impediment to achieving results, leading to frequent violations of the collective agreement. This dynamic leads to ongoing conflict between management and union, further draining the organization’s energy and resources, eroding the very productivity and results the company is seeking to achieve. Both management and the union need to revisit how the collective agreement is used, and could be used more effectively, within the organization.

To meet the challenges of the future, the onus lies on both management and the union to help create a working environment where every member of the organization contributes to the organization’s success. Based on the experience of a number of labour relations professionals, below are some of the most common mistakes and challenges that management and unions face regarding the collective agreement. These mistakes and challenges create the very issues that both are trying to avoid.

Common Management Mistakes

Lack of Training in the Collective Agreement: Lack of clarity and knowledge about the collective agreement among front-line managers and supervisors is a common problem in organizations. Recently, I was conducting a focus group with managers as part of the development of a training module on the organization’s collective agreement. I asked a group of 10 experienced managers (some of whom had been managers for 15 to 20 years) how many considered themselves to be very knowledgeable about their own collective agreement. Two raised their hands. Surprised, I asked how many had actually read the collective agreement within the last two years. The same two individuals raised their hands. Even more surprised, I asked those two why they, in particular, had read the collective agreement, and both told me they had recently been members of the union at this company, and had just been promoted to supervisors. In other words, eight of the ten managers were not at all knowledgeable about their own collective agreement (regardless of their length of service), and regularly made decisions without having a clear idea if they were complying with the labour agreement. Even worse, it was very likely that many of their staff did know whether their decisions complied.

The greatest building block for establishing credibility in the workplace for a manager or supervisor is clear knowledge and familiarity with the collective agreement. Without this knowledge, management lack credibility with their staff, impairing their ability to lead and drive change with their workforce.

Lack of Interpersonal Skills When Applying the Collective Agreement: Even when supervisors and managers do know and understand the basics of the collective agreement, they sometimes use it as a form of “power” to force their employees into compliance, rather than as a jointly agreed framework everyone must operate within. Once this workplace framework is clear and understood—both through the collective agreement and overall policies and procedures—it is still critical that managers and supervisors effectively engage their staff in a positive, productive relationship. Management-union relationships don’t run effectively through the use of power; they function productively when a climate of respect and engagement exists. And it’s up to management to take the lead in creating this climate.

Ineffective Communication with Staff: While there may be many meetings held, and a great deal of e-mail flying around the office, management has frequently still not communicated effectively with staff. The essence of good communication is answering the question, “Why?” Why is this initiative taking place? Why are we doing this? Why is this or that important? Much research shows that without everyone clearly knowing and understanding why decisions are made, or actions taken, little engagement, or commitment will arise. Effective communication requires management to have a communication strategy, one that prioritizes information, communicates it clearly, and repeatedly in a range of forums, from the company newsletter to labour management meetings, to shop floor meetings. When the “Why?” question is answered clearly and unambiguously, engagement and commitment are not far behind.

Common Union Challenges

Creating or Allowing a Reactive Environment: Many times, unions feel shut out by management, and react by simply resisting anything that isn’t crystal clear to them. Instead of resisting management decisions, unions should take the lead in asking: “Why?” That is, unions should hold management accountable to having clear, understandable reasons and rationale for decision-making. Further, unions must demonstrate a willingness to listen and take management’s goals for the organization seriously. By taking a proactive stand, rather than a reactive one, the union assumes a leadership role in helping to create a positive work environment for all staff.

Creating or Allowing an Adversarial Environment: In addition to resisting management decisions when feeling shut out, unions may become flat out adversarial on principle, refusing to support even positive changes the organization is implementing. These adversarial feelings often stem from a long history of conflict. Regardless of their root cause, a defensive stance makes it even easier for management to ignore, or marginalize the union, leading to even greater levels of resistance. This adversarial environment is characterized by the thought that, “If management wants it, it must be bad for us!” Once a strongly adversarial mindset takes hold, many opportunities to improve the workplace disappear. Once again, unions should hold management accountable by requiring both a clear understanding of management decisions, along with respect for the collective agreement. In turn, management will likely be encouraged to engage with, rather than marginalize the union.

Seeing Discipline as Purely “Punitive”: Discipline, when properly executed, is corrective in nature; discipline that is properly and fairly applied is necessary in workplaces. Unions that approach all discipline as unnecessary or unfair foster the wrong mindset. Unions have a clear duty to fairly represent their members, and must hold management accountable for fair and corrective use of discipline. This accountability doesn’t mean, however, that all discipline must be resisted and fought. By enforcing an approach that balances fair representation with a reasonable and corrective use of discipline, both parties will be promoting a culture of high performance and fair treatment in the workplace.


Both unions and management have a duty to create productive, respectful, and engaging workplaces. The collective agreement is one of the main tools that both parties must use effectively to create this organizational culture. Unfortunately, in many workplaces the collective agreement is seen by management as “the union’s document,” an attitude that prevents management from being able to manage effectively. And unions, in turn, may see the collective agreement as the primary way to resist most management changes and initiatives—an attitude that fosters conflict, rather than productivity.

Only by promoting knowledge and clarity of the collective agreement across the management team, as well as by supporting productivity and change initiatives that respect the collective agreement, can management teams and unions build strong organizations and better working relationships.


About the Author

Gary Furlong, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Gary T. Furlong is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC Labour Relations programs.

Investigative Tips for Labour Relations Practitioners: Reporting the Evidence – DOs and DON’Ts

A key component of fact-finding is the gathering and reporting of evidence. The fact-finding report is intended to be a reliable resource for labour relations practitioners. Thus, the following DOs and DON’Ts should be considered when preparing the evidence section of the fact-finding report:

  • DO be concise. Often the position of one of the parties, or the evidence of a witness, can be summarized briefly, while remaining complete. Avoid presenting the argument or information in a certain order, or at a given level of detail, simply because the witness did so.
  • DO present only evidence that is relevant. Often one piece of information that seems relevant at one point in the investigation is ultimately found irrelevant.
  • DO indicate the full extent of a witness’ knowledge of an event. Did the witness actually see or hear the event? Did she/he hear about it second-hand? Or, is she/he speculating on what might have happened?
  • DO try to see the evidence and the report from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the events; try to anticipate and answer the questions of the reader.
  • DO use direct quotes where the exact words are important. Also, ensure that you present a witness’ evidence with use of attributive phrases such as “the witness stated that…”, so that it is clear that the material represents the witness’ evidence, and not your own opinions or observations.
  • DON’T exclude evidence simply because you don’t think that it is credible. Include the evidence and discuss the witness’ credibility, if necessary, in the analysis section of the report so the reader can make his/her own decision.
  • DON’T include, in the evidence section, analytical material or commentary such as, “This statement by the respondent is inconsistent with his previous statement that…”. The inconsistency should be apparent to your reader if the report is well-written—if you need to point it out explicitly, you can do so in the analysis section.

Compiling an accurate fact-finding report is integral to a good investigative outcome; make sure you present the facts with purpose and objectivity.

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