Queen's University IRC

Getting Along With the Union

10 Tips from Ontario Nurses’ Association President Linda Haslam-Stroud
Kirsteen MacLeod

February 1, 2010

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.”

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