Managing Unionized Environments: Post-Program Perspectives

Alison Hill, Queen's IRC Research Associate
Labour Relations

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.

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