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An excerpt from the State of the Art and Practice in Dispute Resolution Symposium to honour the late Dr. Bryan M. Downie
Labour Relations

On November 2 to 3, 2001, scholars, unionists, employee relations professionals, dispute resolution practitioners, and representatives from industry and government attended a special symposium on the State of the Art and Practice in Dispute Resolution. The symposium was held to pay tribute to the late Dr. Bryan M. Downie, an outstanding scholar and practitioner in the field of dispute resolution and industrial relations. The purpose of the symposium was to bridge theory and practice, contribute to a greater understanding of current approaches used in dispute resolution, and provide participants with an effective learning environment in which they could share knowledge and experiences. The event was jointly developed and sponsored by representatives from academia, business, and labour and supported with funding by the Labour-Management Partnerships Program.

Downie Symposium Proceedings excerpt

Discussions during the symposium revealed that employers, unions, academics, and human resource management/industrial relations practitioners recognize the need to improve relationships, engage in joint problem-solving, seek interest-based solutions, and share new research and practices in the field of dispute resolution. There was general agreement on the importance of building and maintaining positive relationships, not only in the workplace but also in other areas of our lives, such as the home, the community, and the world. The approaches that are taken to deal with problems or to resolve disputes will depend on the past and current relationships between the parties and the future prospects for those relationships.

  • Participants learned about four important characteristics of a positive or peaceful working relationship. In a positive relationship, people must have the opportunity to develop their potential, but not at the expense of others. The relationship needs to be characterized by both perceived and actual justice, and there must be fair treatment. There has to be respect for the person, and, as one discussant observed, respect for the democracy of the parties. Finally, the relationship has to be moving toward a condition of trust where each party is looking out for the interests and needs of the other. In looking for a positive working relationship, there are three important areas to consider: a substantive and sustainable outcome, a fair and reasonable procedure, and a psychological satisfaction of interests.
  • The presentations and discussions also brought forth several approaches and strategies for building better relationships and resolving disputes. In summary, the following points are worth reiterating:
  • People need to be able to discuss and work on areas of mutual concern, talk about past history, tell their stories, and develop a common vision for positive working relationships.
  • Communication needs to be genuine, open, transparent, and ongoing. Building support among the stakeholders is important.
  • Framing and reframing the issues or problems can determine the parties’ real interests.
  • Framing and reframing issues within the interest of the constituents can help to build consensus and mobilize support.
  • In labour-management relationships, it is important to recognize the democratic-political nature of unions when trying to build consensus.
  • Collaboration may require broad outside support, including a supportive political system.
  • There may be a need to develop new skills or change existing procedures, processes, and structures.
  • It is important to promote early and accurate exchange of information.
  • Acceptable standards and criteria for evaluating options need to be established.
  • It will help to generate multiple options. Procedures should be established to deal with future conflict.
  • If a party is using power in a relationship, the power has to be used in a respectful way; it has to be congruent with long-term objectives and promote the kind of relationship that is being sought.
  • Cooperation requires some sharing of power.
  • An initial failure to develop a collaborative relationship can lay the groundwork for future relationship-building.
  • Workplace issues need to be dealt with one problem at a time.
  • There is a role for third party assistance in developing collaborative relationships.
  • Mediation can positively change the culture of labour relations disputes and collective bargaining relationships by overcoming strategic, structural, and cognitive barriers, building trust and empathy, identifying the parties’ true interests, maximizing the opportunities to find common ground, helping the parties to problem-solve, involving the parties, improving communication, managing the needed cooperation, keeping a dialogue going, giving the parties ownership over the end result, and providing more enduring holistic solutions not always available to the law.
  • Investments in human resources help to build good relationships.
  • Unions should be clear in their objectives and accountable.
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