Managing Unionized Environments: Post-Program Perspectives

Alison Hill, Queen's IRC Research AssociateFollowing 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

 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

Cultivating Effective Management-Union Relationships in the Unionized WorkplaceIn 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 FacilitatorGary 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

Investigative Tips for Labour Relations Practitioners: Reporting the Evidence - DOs and DON'TsA 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.

Developing a Competency Framework for Labour Relations Professionals

The purpose of this Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) research initiative was to identify and categorize competencies required by a successful Labour Relations Professional (LRP). A review of the literature and an analysis of the IRC’s labour relations programming, led to the development of a survey for experienced labour relations practitioners. The IRC conducted the LRP survey in June 2009. Aggregated data revealed subtle shifts in competencies required for LRPs. Drawing on the 154 survey responses collected, a LRP Competency Framework is proposed. The resulting framework informs the IRC’s program planning and delivery, and is intended to be a practical tool for LRPs to plan their professional development activities.

Labour Arbitration and Conflict Resolution: Back to Our Roots

The 2010 Don Wood Lecture was delivered by The Honourable Warren K. Winkler, Chief Justice of Ontario. The Chief Justice’s lecture presented a synopsis of changes in the labour relations field. The Chief Justice spoke about the “Golden Era” of labour arbitration (1944-1967), and drawing on his experiences and observations, commented on changes in the field today. These changes include a shift in the culture of labour arbitrations, from one of camaraderie amongst colleagues, to a litigation-based process. He concluded his talk with a call to action for labour arbitrators to rid the “dysfunctional arbitration culture” by raising awareness of proportionality (the amount of time spent on a case has to reflect the importance of the case) and protecting the integrity of labour arbitration by ensuring a fair process, with affordable cost, and appropriate timelines.

The Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations was established by friends of W. Donald Wood to honour his outstanding contribution to Canadian industrial relations. Dr Wood was Director of the Industrial Relations Centre from 1960 to 1985, and the first Director of the School of Industrial Relations, established in 1983. The lecture brings to Queen’s University distinguished individuals who have made an important contribution to industrial relations in Canada or other countries.

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.

Getting Along With the Union

How can human resources professionals bargain and build meaningful relationships with the union during tough economic times?

In her recent presentation at Queen’s IRC’s Labour Relations Foundations program, Ontario Nurses’ Association President Linda Haslam-Stroud provided sound advice for signing off on successful collective agreements. In the following excerpts from her talk, Linda shares her top 10 tips.

1. Foster equality: remember, union and management are the team

The employer’s objective is to hold the line or to get concessions, to get as much flexibility as possible so they can operate their organization.

The union is trying to improve wages, benefits and working conditions for members. That’s their job, that’s what they’re elected to do. They are the elected voice, the bargaining agents.

So both sides are coming into this with different goals to achieve. At the outset, HR and labour relations need to appreciate where the union is coming from, where there is room for movement, and where there isn’t.

So talk to your union; HR and labour relations and the union are the team. If you can’t build relationships, you won’t be successful as a union rep or an HR leader.

Courses like IRC’s, for example, foster transparency and open dialogue between management and union representatives. Attendees leave with a tool-kit of practical ideas on fulfilling their accountabilities as HR and union representatives.

2. Find common interests and collaborate

At the ONA, we’ve had success with interest-based bargaining. IBB can be anything from a formal process where you pay someone to come in and facilitate union-management cooperation on common problems, to a more informal approach to talk about issues.

It’s often a good alternative to approaches where employers and the union sit on opposite sides of a table passing documents back and forth.

IBB is helpful for identifying common issues. For example, the ONA and employers both want to provide quality patient care; and we both want to be fiscally responsible with tax dollars.

3. Drill down toward tough issues

First come to consensus on high-level issues, and then break down into more specific issues, such as scheduling. Wages, benefits and anything financial we leave until the end of the road. You want to build up a relationship when you’re bargaining, so try to get the non-financials off the table first.

4. Sign off as you go along to build momentum

We’ve been very successful in signing off on clauses in the nonstrike sector and in the strike sector too with CCAC case managers, public health nurses and nurses in industry. We find that this builds momentum, trust and credibility. So if you have four things you’ve agreed on and then break down on a really difficult issue, that relationship that’s been built will help you successfully negotiate further.

5. Talk – don’t push papers

Even if you are in a traditional bargaining setting, instead of just passing papers back and forth, talk about the issue. If the union’s come forward to you with some bizarre proposal, don’t walk out of the room without saying, “So union, tell me why do you want this; what’s the issue here?” It might be something you can give to union members and at the same time support what you want. But you’ll never know unless you engage.

If you want to negotiate well, start talking, ask questions. Say, “We have a problem with this, here’s how we think we can solve it, have you got any suggestions, union?” You might be able to get where you need to be without aggressive concessionary language that the unions could never take back to their members.

6. Avoid package deals

Package bargaining drives me crazy – at ONA we just ignore it. You know, “We’ll give you A if you give us the employers’ BCDEF and G.”

Passing packages back and forth drives me crazy. Basically you’ve told the union you’re willing to give on that point. And we’re saying, “Okay, that’s done, so let’s get down to the other ones we need to deal with.”

I’m not a big proponent of these packages.

7. Come prepared to negotiate

This scenario happens frequently: we as the union have taken five months to get to the table, arranged with everyone’s busy schedules to be there, including nurses pulled off very busy units that are often short-staffed, and we sit down to bargain. Then the employer says, “Ok, we’ll take a look at it, and our next day for bargaining is four weeks from now.” The employer group hasn’t even met to decide what its proposals are!

Have a good idea of what the language in the current collective agreement says when you come to bargain, and what your priorities are, whether you are management or union, and facts about why you want what you want. You have to show reasons so when we go to arbitration we can share case facts. Be prepared to tell this to the other side of the table: “We need this because of X.”

8. Hone priorities and proposals continually

At ONA we bargain at two levels: centrally and provincially. So how do we make sure we are very well positioned to go to bargaining?

We do a bargaining questionnaire of our 55,000 members. We have an external firm mail it out and members mail it back. We typically get high response rates of 35% to 40%.

The information is broken down into sectors: we know first priority, second priority, and down the list. We know what age group wants what percentage of a wage increase.

We have all that information, so when we come to the table, its not just a wish-list from members from the past two years since we signed the last collective agreement. It’s solid quantitative and qualitative information.

9. Signing the collective agreement means your job has just begun

Whether you are a union rep or in HR, once the agreement is signed, the question becomes, “So how will we implement this?”

Employers sometimes send out copies of the collective agreement to all managers, or have a short meeting with HR to orient them to the new language.

This isn’t enough: it’s about the ongoing discussion with managers on how the collective agreement is applied. And on the union side, reps have a responsibility too: to tell employees what their rights are, and aren’t.

10. Hold joint meetings about implementing agreements

One of the best practices I’ve seen in 30 years of negotiating was at St. Joseph’s in Hamilton. We got together after the collective agreement was signed and talked about how to implement it. We said, “Let’s sit, union and management together, and talk about the amendments and how that’s going to be worked out.”

The ONA has sometimes had joint meetings that include management and members to say, “This is the new collective agreement, a joint presentation of our joint collective agreement, a collective agreement that is ours and not theirs.” This goes a long way toward ensuring labour peace.”

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.”


“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)

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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