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