4 Principles to Build Trust Between Union and Management

Trust … a feeling that is often hard to describe in words. We all know what it feels like when we trust someone, and conversely when we feel we are trusted. It becomes more complex when we consider trust in our personal lives vs trust in our work lives. What I have learned over my career is that there should not be a difference between the two – that to be most effective in the workplace (and be trusted) we need to follow the same simple principles that we do at home. In this article, I will focus on how leaders in organizations can effectively build trust with their union leadership and representatives; from my experience in the corporate world, many management leaders struggle with how to do this effectively.

To break it down into parts, I will focus on the principles I have learned to follow when working with unions to build trust in different organizations.

  1. Be authentic in ALL interactions with your union representatives.
  2. Treat the union like employees (as a matter of fact – they are!), not like cost-incurring burdens.
  3. Learn with your union leaders.
  4. Communicate always – don’t wait until it is time to bargain to start working through problems.

1. Be Authentic

This sounds obvious, right? It isn’t. I have coached so many leaders in different organizations on how to communicate and act when dealing with their unions. Leaders often lose their authenticity because they are afraid of saying ‘too much,’ or revealing secrets the union ‘shouldn’t know.’ Being authentic doesn’t mean you have to divulge everything. It means coming across as real, and open. It means ditching the ‘Tiger Suit’ to quote my earliest career mentor Peter Edwards. From my experience, many company leaders still feel it is a big act where they have to put on the tiger suits and let out the big intimidating roars. Put away the suit and try taking the authenticity approach. Don’t just act like you care, CARE.

2. Treat the Union like Employees

Union members are (as a matter of fact) employees. So often the way union employees are talked about in companies can be very divisive and biased. The difference between union and management employees is of course the collective agreement that lays out the terms and conditions of employment, represented by the union team. When leaders make an honest effort at the very top to speak about unionized employees like they are first and foremost employees of the company, it is amazing how this can cascade down through the organization. When a union is continuously spoken about as a cost burden, it can absolutely be heard and felt by those employees in the union. It is tough to quantify the cost that is avoided when leaders can genuinely treat union members as employees first.

3. Learn WITH your Union Leaders

To help build trust and the relationship with union leadership, it can be effective to invite them to share learning experiences. I have experienced this in two different organizations, where sharing the learning you are offering to your management leaders with your union leaders in the same room, can go along way (ie: Queens University Managing Unionized Environments program). Don’t feel you have to limit this to learning events. Invite union leadership and representatives to the table more often where you otherwise wouldn’t. It does wonders for developing relationships and trust.

4. Communicate Always

Communication is the foundation to all of the above. But it is still worth a call-out on its own. I have seen many leaders avoid great opportunities to proactively communicate with union leadership for a variety of reasons. It is far more effective when it is time to bargain if management has had open communication and frequent communication with union leaders. Set up mechanisms to deal with issues as they come in hopes of resolving them early. In my experience when this has been religiously followed, trust naturally is built which makes everything easier from a business perspective. It is no different than communicating with out-of-scope employees or your family at home. Remember – when you think you have communicated clearly and enough – you haven’t.

Trust is about relationships. The biggest downfall I have seen in organizations is leaders not taking the time to want to genuinely build the relationship, which then in turn, builds trust.

 

About the Author

Kathy McCrum is an accomplished HR professional that has worked in a unionized environment throughout her 22-year career. She started her career working for Canadian Pacific Railway where she first was introduced to the labour relations environment.  She held various management/leadership positions. Kathy moved into executive leadership when she made the industry change to heavy equipment. She became VP, HR and Safety for a Caterpillar equipment dealership in Saskatchewan. Following this opportunity, Kathy was brought to the Coop Refinery Complex (FCL) where she led the HR/LR department. She was able to get involved in bargaining for the company, as well as participate in many labour relations learning events that helped shape her approach. In 2017, Kathy moved on to become a member of the SaskPower executive team and was appointed Executive VP HR and Safety. Again, she worked closely with the different union organizations and built relationships and trust.  Most recently Kathy worked very closely with the WestJet pilots union (ALPA) as well as led the airports union to their first ever labour agreement. She is passionate in her beliefs that relationships and trust drive all of it. Whether you work with a union or not, you need to know how to, and honestly be genuine in your interactions with people if you want to be successful.  Currently she is the Executive VP at Trican (an oil and gas well services company).

Best Practices for Returning to the Workplace

There are many unanswered questions about Canadian workplaces as we look toward reopening offices. The well-established principles and guidelines that employers, unions and employees have followed for many years will certainly help navigate this process. That said, this pandemic takes us into new and uniquely uncharted waters that may well shift some or all of these principles as we move forward. This article will look at the frameworks in place today, as well as best practices for boldly going where few workplaces have gone before.

Management Rights

An important principle is the idea of management rights, in both union and non-union workplaces. Following this principle, employers, for example, have the right to determine work location – remote, in-office, or a mix. In most collective agreements, for example, the management rights clause typically allows management to set all aspects of the work and workplace, unless specific language has been negotiated in the collective agreement. In non-union workplaces, this right can only be constrained by language in individual employment contracts.

This is, of course, not a blanket right – employers cannot violate employment standards legislation or labour laws, nor use this right in any way that is arbitrary, discriminatory, or done in bad faith. Practically speaking, however, if the employer decides they want the workforce to return from remote work to working in the office, they have a right to this.

It would be a mistake, however, for employers to focus too heavily on these rights as a way to make effective decisions for the organization. As a famous saying goes, “Just because you have the right to do something does not make it the right thing to do.” In addition, this right comes along with some significant obligations.

Download PDF: Best Practices for Returning to the Workplace

Relationship Management in a Union Environment

Building relationships in the workplace is hard – and it takes work. It’s even more difficult when you work in a unionized organization which has traditionally adversarial relationships. But these days, organizations like the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) are stepping away from the attitude that, as a union, you have to be in ‘fight mode’ all the time. They are working towards accomplishing more for their members by trying to have better relationships with management.

This is where the Queen’s IRC Relationship Management in a Union Environment program comes in. In January 2019, OSSTF asked Queen’s IRC Director, Stephanie Noel, to run a one-day custom training program for its new Protective Services Committee (PSC). The training focused on working towards common interests, better communication, and handling conflict in workplace relationships.

Bob Fisher, OSSTF Director of Member Protection, says that the vision for the new Protective Services Committee is that it’s a committee of experts. Committee members will give advice for central negotiating issues, but also be a resource to Local bargaining units in their day-to-day labour relations issues. The 34-member committee is made up of Local union leaders from across the province, assisted by 8 staff members.

“We used to have a provincial collective bargaining committee that just wasn’t meeting the needs of the organization,” said Kerri Ferguson, OSSTF Director of Negotiations Contract Maintenance. “It tended to be populated with grassroots members who didn’t necessarily have all of the skills and experience.”

The people who are on the new committee were chosen because they already have a certain level of expertise in negotiations, grievance arbitration, problem solving, collective agreements, contract maintenance, and education funding. And with a strong training component built in, particularly for the first year of the committee, Bob expects that members will become “better experts” at the things that they’re already experts at, and raise their level of competence in the areas where they aren’t as strong.

When Kerri and Bob sat down to decide what training they needed, one of the first things they identified was the desire for people to establish good relationships with their employer counterparts.  And then they had to decide ‘How do we get that in front of the committee?’ The first thing Bob thought of was Queen’s IRC. He was aware that Queen’s IRC did custom training, and both he and Kerri had taken Queen’s IRC labour relations courses in the past.

“Everyone in our organization who does something through Queen’s IRC acknowledges its quality,” Kerri said.  “We have never done anything like we’re doing this year in terms of spending money on quality training for this group of experts,” said Kerri.  Previously, they had mainly done internal training.

Queen’s IRC facilitator, Jim Harrison, led the relationship-building program for OSSTF. “The focus for a program like this would normally be on the front-line people who are negotiating and handling grievances,” said Jim. It’s a critical skill for them to be able to have good communication skills, understand common interests, and be able to work well with their colleagues.

“What Bob and Kerri picked up on was that building these kinds of relationship skills also improves internal relationships within the union itself – department to department, individual to individual, employee to management,” said Jim.

Being in the education business, PSC members are exposed to a great deal of professional development, Bob said. “I had a number of people come up to me after the Queen’s IRC session and tell me that it was the most meaningful, useful P.D. they have had – ever!”

Feedback from the committee members about the IRC program was overwhelmingly positive.

Betty-Jo Raddin is a Local president in the Bluewater District School Board, a Protective Services Committee member, and the Vice-Chair of the Negotiations and Implementations Sub-committee. She was able to takeaway lots of key points from the ‘questioning and listening’ section.

“I need to be able to ask the right questions and listen in order to be able to effectively problem solve the situation,” she said. “I need to know what to ask them in order to figure out, is there some way that we can come up with a resolution that could work for both of us?”

“When you’re having a discussion or disagreement and you’re not reaching a resolution on something, often I think we blame the other person instead of looking at ‘what’s the situation?’ What are the situational reasons that they’re unable to agree to what we need them to agree to?”

Betty-Jo appreciated that this training was tailored to a unionized environment because it was very applicable to her situation compared to some of the other outside training she has done.

Dave Weichel has been a chief negotiator with OSSTF for about 18 years. He is a member of the Protective Services Committee, vice chair of Contract Maintenance and Member Protection Sub-committee and still works on a day-to-day basis as a guidance counselor. Dave is in an unusual position, as most of the people who are involved in the PSC are exclusively serving as OSSTF leaders.

“As somebody who still has to deal with school board level development, the Queen’s IRC Relationship Building training was one of the best things I have ever had access to!”

Dave was impressed with the fact that the training was not only in-depth, but also interactive with great opportunities to sit down and participate. “It wasn’t just having someone talk at us for eight hours,” he said. “You really feel like you walk out of there better prepared, with a better toolkit, to go about doing what we do. It was awesome.”

The Queen’s IRC approach includes exercises that allow people to work through real life situations and practice the skills they are learning in a safe environment. While these exercises were sometimes a bit awkward for the OSSTF participants, they were excellent learning experiences.

For the Chair of the Protective Services Committee, Fatima DeJesus, the training was a good refresher on conflict resolution skills. Part of the training focused on learning to step into conflicts rather than running away from them, so you are able to resolve them before they blow up into something bigger.

Fatima is also the president of an educational support staff bargaining unit and early childhood educators bargaining unit. The training made her think about what the other side is feeling and thinking about, which she acknowledges, is something that you often forget. “You’re very focused on what you want as the Local leader, and what’s important to you, but you sometimes lose sight of what’s important to the other side,” she said. “The room was full of experts, but it was quite interesting to hear that a lot of people didn’t always think about what the other side was thinking.”

The questioning and listening section also stood out for Fatima. “I’ve learned to ask the open-ended questions, and I’ll be honest with you, I’ve learned to shut up a little bit and listen a little bit better too!”

Fatima echoes what the post-program evaluations revealed: “It was amazing training. I would have to honestly say probably one of the best training sessions I’ve ever had. If anyone is even considering doing this, then I would absolutely recommend it 100%.”

OSSTF is a union with 60,000 members, 230 job classes, 151 bargaining units and 37 districts. The bargaining units are organized by job class which includes teachers, support staff, custodial, office and clerical staff. Although this training was created for members of the PSC, it was also opened up to Local leaders.

“I sat at a table with Local people,” said Kerri Ferguson. “At my table, no one else had done Provincial office level work. All of them were thrilled with this training. It made them think in ways they’ve never thought before.” Kerri said her tablemates were already planning to use the techniques they were learning as soon as they returned to the office.

Kerri enjoyed the mixture of speaking, writing, thinking and table exercises. “For me personally, I think it validated and gave some language to what I’ve always believed and been trying to do.” It opened her eyes to the fact that things that come naturally to some people don’t necessarily come naturally to others. “I’ve learned what needs to be explained to people (which I just didn’t think needed to be explained) and I have the words to do it.”

Kerri and Bob are full of praise for facilitator Jim Harrison and Queen’s IRC. “Jim was a very dynamic presenter – he went for the entire day and never seemed to lose energy,” said Kerri.

“There was lots of really good material to chew on, and he presented it in a way that kept everybody engaged,” Bob said. “I just can’t say enough about how pleased I am with the way he operates … Of course, I’ve come to expect that from Queen’s IRC.”

As someone who has attended previous Queen’s IRC programs, Bob said he is always impressed with the quality of the training, and this custom session was no exception. “I’m really pleased with the way it went.”

 

For more information on custom training, please visit our website at https://irc.queensu.ca/learning/custom-training/ or contact Cathy Sheldrick at cathy.sheldrick@queensu.ca.

Best Practices for the Union-Management Relationship in the Workplace

These are challenging times for public-sector finances, private-sector growth in a sputtering economy, and hard conversations at the collective bargaining table.  With so many issues on the macro level, we sometimes lose sight of the day-to-day working relationship for all of our employees and bargaining unit members. For the vast majority of unionized and non-unionized workers, it is the day–to-day interactions that determine whether the workplace is a productive, engaged environment, or one that preoccupies everyone with conflict, grievances and problems. Where each workplace falls on that spectrum will largely determine productivity, quality, absenteeism, as well as retention and recruitment. In other words, success often depends on what we do each and every day in the union-management relationship.

Jointly Building a Productive, Constructive Workplace

To achieve a healthy workplace that leads to commitment and engagement, there are some important best practices that can be implemented, jointly, by the union-management partnership. Consider some or all of the following five best practices for managing in a unionized workplace:

1. Joint Training for Supervisors and Stewards

There is still a common mindset among management that once an employee is elected to the union, they now work for somebody else. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that companies train their employees year in and year out – skill building is one of the best investments in the workplace. Yet union stewards and members of the executive do not cease to be employees when they take on a union role. In fact, they are even more engaged in the success of the business than they were before, now being responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of employees/members. So, why wouldn’t the company consider their training just as important as any other workplace role?

Some of the most effective training that supervisors and stewards can receive is how to resolve issues at the front line.  Skills-based training on joint problem-solving and conflict resolution can pay major dividends for both the company and the membership when stewards and supervisors are skilled at identifying and working together to resolve issues. As part of the training, both parties should be then expected to address issues at the front line, and not simply pushing them into the grievance process that often results in delays, simply because the front-line interface is ineffective.

2. Application of Discipline

Another area for joint training for supervisors, managers, stewards and the union executive, is on the fair and appropriate application of discipline. Discipline is poorly understood and even more poorly applied in many workplaces, resulting in anger, frustration, disengagement and inappropriate behaviour on both sides.

A transparent, fair, and clear discipline process that is jointly understood and applied benefits everyone in the workplace, including individuals who may indeed receive it. Most importantly, discipline should be preceded by clear discussion and engagement with the employee wherever possible and appropriate, to minimize “surprises”. After all, properly applied discipline has only one purpose – to change and align behaviour. Almost everyone, when treated fairly, will make the changes required.  And when the union and management are both applying the process fairly – and holding each other accountable – everyone benefits.

By training all leaders in the workplace on the proper and effective use of discipline, and with all leaders knowing and understanding the process, formal discipline will be what it is supposed to be – a last resort, not the first action taken.

3. Labour-Management Committee

Most workplaces have some version of a labour-management committee (LMC), or an employee relations committee. Regardless of the title, it is a forum for raising and addressing issues on a regular basis.

If your LMC doesn’t have operating principles or guidelines, it will not be as effective as it could be. Many LMC’s become dysfunctional very quickly, simply because the two parties have different views on the purpose and running of the committee that quickly degenerates into conflict. One of the first steps an effective LMC should take is to establish joint operating guidelines that will help ensure the committee’s success. The collective agreement often defines who attends, how many from each side, and how often the committee must meet. That is a start, but nowhere near enough structure for the committee to succeed. A better approach and framework is needed.

For example, some common operating principles, beyond those mentioned above, may include:

  • Agenda: Who puts the agenda together, how much time is allocated for each item, what type of issues come to LMC, and a commitment from both parties to bring issues needing resolution to the table.  Management must watch the tendency to see LMC as “the union’s meeting”, and end up seeing the meeting as nothing more than “extra work”.  The union must watch for the tendency to bring everything, including individual employee issues, to this table. Both parties should agree on the scope of issues that appropriately land on the LMC agenda.
  • Minutes: Decide early what “minutes” will mean for the teams. Often, the default is to try and capture what each party, or every individual, says during the meeting. This is often unwieldy, and creates far too much formality for an effective LMC.  Successful committees often just capture a short description of the issues raised, the decision or agreement made at LMC, or the next steps with a name and date for completion attached.
  • Problem-solving: The most common trap at LMC’s is the belief that the goal of the committee is to argue. Nothing could be further from the truth – the goal is solving problems that arise in every workplace. And arguing has no place in problem-solving. Operating principles that identify good data collection on an issue, followed by developing options for solving, or at least improving the situation, bring both parties together in finding better outcomes. Arguing simply polarizes the parties, making even simple issues hard to resolve.
  • Other Guidelines: There are other simple guidelines, such as timing, reporting back, joint sub-committees to do more in-depth analysis, and ensuring everyone has a chance to be heard, that all contribute to both parties being a part of the solution. And at the end of the day, any important issue that is not resolved can still be grieved or brought to bargaining – with a great deal more information and understanding attached.

4. Communications are Key

Communicating is simply not enough.  In today’s environment, over-communication is the order of the day.  No one in labour relations likes to be surprised, on either side. When addressing issues, make a joint commitment to keep each other in the loop, discuss expectations of confidentiality, and never let your partner end up with egg on their face. They’ll simply be frying up a new omelette to return the favour. With clear and simple guidelines, both parties can stay in the loop without disadvantaging anyone, nor either party feeling like they have given up their autonomy. A healthy union-management relationship pays many more dividends to both parties than “tricking” or surprising the other party ever did.

5. Joint Communications

For any important workplace issue, management and their union(s) should look toward joint communications, wherever possible.  For example, after finalizing a new collective agreement, the parties should jointly communicate the changes and the rationale behind them. Often, each party communicates to their own stakeholders – management to supervisors, the union to stewards and perhaps their membership. The problem, of course, is that they frequently communicate different messages, setting the workplace up for immediate conflict and grievances. The process of jointly crafting the information and messaging often helps the parties better apply the new language in a fair and direct way. Other areas include changes to legislation, significant workplace changes, policy changes, etc. Both parties will benefit far more from joint communication to employees/members than they ever will gain by putting significant “spin” on it in their favour.

Labour relations is an ongoing process of change, more so now, it seems, than in the past. Major issues such as demographic change, changes in attitudes toward government, international trade, retirement, and types of pension plans are the new normal across Canada. By aligning management and union processes in the workplace in all areas where there is mutual benefit, we all help create healthy and more sustainable workplaces for the future.

About the Author

Gary Furlong

Gary Furlong has extensive experience in labour mediation, alternative dispute resolution, negotiation, and conflict resolution.  He has delivered collective bargaining negotiation skills training for both management and union bargaining teams across Canada, bringing a strong focus of effective and collaborative skills to the table. Gary also conducts relationship building interventions to strengthen day-to-day union-management effectiveness away from bargaining. He has worked with a wide range of companies in the private sector, in the public sector with municipalities, provincial governments and the federal government, and with unions including Unifor, Teamsters, CUPE, ONA, OPSEU, and PSAC. Gary is past president of the ADR Institute of Ontario, is a Chartered Mediator (C. Med.) and holds his Master of Laws (ADR) from Osgoode Hall Law School.  Gary is the author of The Conflict Resolution Toolbox, John Wiley and Sons, 2005.


Check out the Queen’s IRC Managing Unionized Environments joint training program to learn more about managing the day-to-day relationships within a collective agreement.

The Path to Success for Organized Labour

Labour unions are at a critical time in history. Unions are working to engage the current membership and exploring new innovative communication strategies that are needed to reach the younger generation in a meaningful way. Gone are the days of the bulletin board as the primary sources of union news and updates. People are busy and it’s a challenge to draw the membership out to a meeting. It was not too long ago when local arenas were filled to capacity to hear the local union president address the membership. Email, text message, Twitter and Facebook are popular forms of communication in the fast-paced world of work, and the membership is demanding multiple communication platforms to access. Contrary to popular belief, union members are interested in their union; they simply don’t have the time to participate in the traditional model that is in place, the membership meeting.

Like many organizations, unions are in a time of change and transformation.  As stated by Littlemore (2013), union membership is “pretty close to what it was 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.” (p. 1). Many factors affect the decline of union membership and according to Tattersall (2008), these factors include “international economic competition, anti-union legislation and a shift in local industries from unionized manufacturing to non-union services” (p. 416). Although union membership as a whole has remained constant, the numbers require further investigation. Littlemore (2013) confirms private sector union density has been on a constant decline. With a lens on the private sector unions, a more focused examination is required to understand the decline, what factors may be contributing to the drop in membership, as well as what unions can do to reverse this trend.

Download PDF: The Path to Success for Organized Labour

The Future of Labour

The labour movement in Canada has a long and proud history of success and positive community involvement. Throughout the years however, union membership levels across North America have been on a steady decline.  Many would argue the decline in the ranks of unions is attributed to stronger labour laws protecting workers, less interest by the young workers entering the workforce and a more transient workforce demanding flexibility and merit over seniority. These arguments, although attractive on the surface, are easily discredited with a minimal amount of research and thought.  Some would argue that legislation is in place to protect workers’ rights. However, the legislation traditionally provides basic minimums in employment.  Like any piece of legislation, the rights an employee enjoys and relies on can be taken away with the stroke of a pen. ‎Corporate lobbying has taken a toll on legislation designed to protect workers, leaving gaps and holes making the legislation toothless when enforcement is required. Unions are still needed to protect workers, and they are an important part of the future of labour. There are still many workers who work in less than ideal conditions. But like any other organization, unions need to change and adapt to the changing world.

Current Trends

Currently, fast food workers across the United States are engaging in a sort of wildcat strikes to demand a living wage of $15 per hour. These workers are subjected to minimal compensation rates, little to no benefits or pensions and unstructured and unreliable scheduling, all while reading about record corporate profits and CEO’s making anywhere from $7 million to $22 million a year. In the past, these workers normally would have organized and formed a union within their workplace in an effort to have a voice in their working conditions. However, they chose not to take that path. Not because they didn’t want to form a union, but because forming a union has become too cumbersome and formalized through legislation and litigation in the U.S. These workers decided not to take the traditional path of unionization to demand better working conditions, and instead they chose the grass roots path to withhold labour in return for better wages.

This sort of guerrilla tactic is impossible for the corporation to control, or even predict and anticipate. There is no organization behind the movement to sue or pressure, there are no court injunctions to be issued and no organizations funding or coordinating the action. In short, the anti-union legislation has done what it was drafted to do: frustrate union organizing activity to a standstill. However, this type of grass roots, guerrilla mobilization is one of the unintended consequences of anti-union legislation. As these movements become more active and start to become more structured, unions will assist and guide these newly formed “unions”, however, it will be up to the workers if they accept the assistance and support of organized labour.

How U.S. Anti-Union Legislation Affects Canada

Locally, there has been a movement to dismantle the Rand Formula in some jurisdictions in Canada. By removing the Rand Formula, members would no longer be required to pay union dues while still enjoying the benefits of union representation and the benefits of the collective agreement.  With the spread of “right-to–work” legislation being passed in a majority of states in the U.S., including the labour stronghold of Michigan, many pundits claim that to remain competitive similar laws should be adopted in Ontario. Typically, right-to-work states boast that low unionization rates encourage and entice corporations to relocate their facilities to that jurisdiction. Lafer and Allegretto (2011) stated, “right to work laws have not succeeded in boosting employment growth in the states that have adopted them.” (p. 2). This is simply a ploy to gain public support in an underhanded move to financially cripple unions and prevent them from providing representation to the membership.

Precarious Work and Legislative Challenges

Another issue plaguing todays’ workers is the increased use of agency workers or temps. Temporary workers, better known as agency workers, are becoming the trend and the norm in Canadian workplaces. Precarious jobs and low wages are not only a plague to the current workforce, but also to generations of young workers to come. The Globe and Mail reported that, “the number of temporary workers in Canada hit a record two million last year, according to Statistics Canada. This amounts to 13.6% of the workforce compared with 11.3% in 1997.” (Grant, 2011, para. 1).

When a workplace makes the decision to use agency workers to fill permanent vacancies, two outcomes can be expected. First, the agency workers usually have a lower rate of pay and normally have no benefit coverage. Currently, there are no laws in place that prevent an employer from treating an agency worker differently than a regular employee. The Employment Standards Act offers little protection to these workers.

Second, unions struggle with organizing workplaces that are virtually employee-less but have a workforce comprised of workers from multiple temp agencies. These workers do not oppose union certification, on the contrary however, the complex system of agencies in the workplace makes certification nearly impossible. If a worker complains publically, termination is likely the result. At least one employer is facing legal action for firing an agency worker for expressing his unfortunate employment circumstances. Angel Reyes filed a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal after he was terminated for speaking out. Through a workers action center, Angel hopes to bring a voice to agency workers in Ontario (Workers Action Centre, 2015) and stated, “I hope that through this lawsuit United Staffing Services and Canada Fibres will finally be punished for the way they treat workers.”(para. 2).  Ironically, in an interview with the Toronto Star (Mojtehedzadeh, 2015) Angel stated, “the biggest issue is the lack of respect and dignity in (temporary) work. Nobody is seeing them for who they are and the work that they’re doing. They are completely invisible.”(para. 5). This type of precarious employment combined with an unstable relationship with the employer puts a chill on union organizing before it even begins.

Political Action

Labour unions are facing a challenging time. Doorey (2013) stated, “polls of workers in Canada and the U.S. demonstrate clearly that many, many more workers would like to be unionized than actually are.” (para. 9). However, despite the fact that workers are increasingly interested in forming a union in their workplace, this is becoming more difficult to achieve. As illustrated with the U.S. fast food employees, workers are resorting to more non-traditional approaches such as self-organizing and withholding labour. Workers are accessing worker action centers for assistance with employment related issues, a job that until recently unions held. Unions have adapted to change over the years and today’s problems will be met with creative solutions. One thing is clear now more than ever – unions must be involved in politics to ensure legislation is current and effective. It has become clear that labour unions are one of the last structured pillars supporting fairness and equality in the workplace. The task at hand is to ensure fences are not erected around the pillars that prevent workers from accessing union representation.

Grass Roots: A Renewed Vision

Internally, unions are returning to their roots.  Community Action Networks (CAN) are a renewed vision of solidarity and community activism. They are responsible for raising the profile of labour unions within our communities. ‎The CANs attend community events to profile the union and the work it does through collective bargaining and organizing. They are also responsible for establishing a network that labour and community activists can access. By bridging this gap, labour and community groups can consolidate their efforts to become more effective and efficient in their approach to influence change. This is important because change motivates and encourages participation and CANs are effective at building strong and sustainable relationships that produce results.

The labour movement’s success and rapid growth, that occurred in the 1930’s when labour unions were mobilizing in record numbers, offered hope, vision and a better way through collective bargaining and collective action.

Today, labour unions need to look at mobilizing their current membership, re-engaging with their existing members, and building the sense of community that working people are looking for. The past holds the key to the future success of the labour movement. It is up to the current leadership and the future leadership of the labour movement to go back to the future, build on past successes and create opportunity for innovative ideas to grow and evolve. Social media and ‘hacktavisim’ should not be a substitute for direct face-to-face contact with the members. As seen in the recent provincial and federal elections, labour unions are mobilizing their membership to exercise their collective voice in support of worker friendly legislation and forming lines at the ballot box to force change that better represents workers interests. Workers are realizing that voting for candidates that push an agenda that does not meet the needs of the working class, is in essence voting against their own interests. Member mobilization is the first step to reengaging the membership and reinvigorating the membership.

About the Author

Derik McArthur

Derik McArthur began his career with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after graduation from Confederation College with dual diplomas in Human Resources and Human Resources Management.  In 2005, he was elected as president, RWDSU Canada, and as RWDSU International Vice-President/Canadian director. The following year, he was elected to international Vice-President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) – a union that represents 1.4 million members in North America. In 2012, Derik lead RWDSU Canada, the Northern Joint Council and the 11 RWDSU locals in a merger with UFCW local 175 & 633 creating UFCW’s largest local union in North America, boasting a membership of over 74,000 members. Derik is now a director with UFCW local 175 & 633 based in Mississauga, Ontario.  Derik holds a BA in Justice Studies and an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Royal Roads University. In his spare time Derik is an active member of the Canadian Forces Army reserve.

References

Aubrey, A. (2014). Fast-Food CEOs Earn Supersize Salaries; Workers Earn Small Potatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/04/22/305859588/fast-food-ceos-earn-supersized-salaries-workers-earn-small-potatoes.

Doorey, D. (2013). Law of work. Don’t confuse union density with the demand for unionization. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://lawofwork.ca/?p=2910#sthash.4Dc2sOXE.dpuf.

Grant, T. (2013). Canada’s shift to a nation of temporary workers. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/jobs/canadas-shift-to-a-nation-of-temporary-workers/article11721139/.

Lafer, G. & Allegretto, S. (2011). Does ‘right to work’ create jobs. Answers from Oklahoma. Retrieved November 18, 2015, from http://www.irle.berkeley.edu/cwed/wp/right_to_work.pdf.

Mojtehedzadeh, S. (2015, May 10). Ontario employers cashing in on temporary workers.  The Toronto Star. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://m.thestar.com/#/article/news/gta/2015/05/10/ontario-employers-cashing-in-on-temporary-workers.html.

Workers Action Centre. (2015, September 18). Former temp agency worker files lawsuit after being fired for speaking out. Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.workersactioncentre.org/updates/former-temp-agency-worker-files-lawsuit-after-being-fired-for-speaking-out/.

There is No Cookie Cutter Approach to Labour Relations

As an HR professional or senior leader, you spend years mastering the labour relations fundamentals. Not the textbook fundamentals, but the behaviours, the actions, communication styles–the way you handle sensitive situations. You log numerous failures, like the time you told the union that the grievance was invalid because they used red ink, the time you were new and mistook a seasoned union employee for a manager and accidentally told them your grievance strategy, and the time(s) you said “sure, we can do that” at the Labour/Management table when you really should have said “let me look into that.” 

You learn. Your teachers are your HR superiors, your management teams and your unions. Yes. Let the unions teach you too. And be open to their wisdom. Because when it comes to positive labour relations there is no cookie cutter approach.

Let’s let “HR Novice” show us how his style grew with his experience…

In a grievance discussion at a manufacturing plant, the union executive speak in loud accusatory tones toward management. Management frequently does not follow through on the tabled issues and communication is very disjointed. The social norm for front line management is to avoid union discussions and rule with a heavy hand. There is very little collaboration. The largely uneducated and non-English-speaking employees do as they are told, fearful of reprisals. Modelling his behaviour from upper management, the HR Novice acts in a similar fashion and soon is regarded as aloof and “just another white hat.” The business of the day, however, is booming and upper management use this as the only success indicator. The union executive predominantly ignore HR Novice and instead form their own hierarchy and culture to deal with issues in the workplace.  When HR Novice does seek to assert himself, often in the form of shouting, he is met with dissonance and soft laughter. Unknowingly and still with the backing of the senior managers, HR Novice thinks he is a successful communicator with the union and inwardly, is proud of his accomplishments.

Two years later, HR Novice moves on in his career to another unionized manufacturing plant with the majority of employees holding high school education. This assembly plant is cleaner, has solid practices in place and is piloting the lead hand model. Having found such success with his labour relations style, HR Novice presents himself as a strong force with little flexibility.  Management is initially pleased with the support but start to feel the ripples of union discontent. Employees quickly realize their opinion is neither solicited nor valued. The lead hands who essentially bridge management and front line staff begin to step down from their roles. After about a year, HR Novice receives some great coaching from a mentoring manager.  In time HR Novice co-facilitates, with his mentor, a new strategy of transparency and informed messaging. The intent behind the strategy is to seek to inform the union of the reasons behind management’s decisions. The practice of shouting at employees thankfully diminishes. Unfortunately, very little consultation or collaboration is sought of employees, but advance notice and statistics act as commercials for future changes. The management misinterpret the union’s woe as lack of information. Missing its mark, union relations improve only modestly by the time HR Novice moves on in 3 years’ time.

HR Novice (well, let’s call him “HR Intermediate” now) chooses a unionized chain of hotels as his next career jump. The staff are educated, multilingual and service driven. There are very few issues with respect to labour-management. The autonomous staff give leaders the luxury to spend the bulk of their time on special projects instead of day-to-day supervision.

HR Intermediate is new to the industry and seeks to learn from the management team. He brings with him his toolkit of HR knowledge which now has his collaborative style as well as his authoritarian style.  He sways between the two styles and second-guesses a lot of his decisions, at times feeling overwhelmed. One day, while waiting in the hallway for a meeting to start he overhears some union stewards discussing a recent decision he made. They ponder aloud HR Intermediate’s reasoning and chalk up the poor decision to his inexperience with the hospitality industry.  A remark is made, “I wonder why he never shadowed us or asked us about our job functions before restructuring the scheduling program. It doesn’t work for us.” The unintended feedback resonates with HR Intermediate and he seeks to add yet another tool to his kit. The tool of “all of your training doesn’t have to come from management.”

You are not weak if you ask employees to show you their duties, and learn their trade. Not unlike any professional, union personnel take great pride in their work and often bring years of savvy seniority to the business – something that HR Intermediate had previously overlooked. He continues to seek first to understand, before making decisions or informing senior management tables.  HR Intermediate continues his learning path for the next 5 years, coaching the leaders on his newfound style.

HR Intermediate now joins the world of retail. A chain of houseware stores claims his attention for the next 6 years. His array of HR skills is growing. He now understands that you don’t need to pick a style and stick with it. He knows that the style is specific to the situation or the strategy at play, and that even more than one strategy can be used at once. He finds Zen by being collaborative to an extent and then on other occasions, just informs and implements, sometimes without consultation, if the situation warrants.

More importantly, HR Intermediate understands that there aren’t two sides in opposition to each other in the workplace. And there is no winner when it comes to employee relations. Employees all expect respect, a diplomatic approach and informed decision-making. No singular style fits every workplace or is fulsome enough to span a whole career. Workplaces are not cookies cut from the same gingerbread mold.  The industry, the organization’s mission and the people that work there are the key to making HR successful.

Remember who our teachers are.  We don’t get “this HR thing” right for years, just ask HR Novice.

 

About the Author

Leanne Gray

Leanne Gray, CHRL, is currently the Director of People Services for the Toronto Central Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) where she leads the Human Resources department in performing their front-line functions to support community health care.  Prior to that, Leanne worked in intensely unionized local government in both small and large municipal sectors for 11+ years. Leanne has been trained and certified in Advanced Dispute Resolution and is a qualified mediator. Leanne’s career has allowed her to participate regularly in grievance hearings, mediations, arbitrations and act as the Management Chair for collective bargaining. Her experience has included union certification drives, decertification of a union, strikes, lockouts and interest arbitrations.

Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Our Continuing Need to Teach

Francine had been disciplined before. She had been suspended for 3 days, for an angry outburst that she had in the shipping department. But this time was worse.

Francine was in the cafeteria, finishing her break. Three co-workers sat down at the same table, and within minutes she began yelling and swearing at them. One of them began talking to her, trying to quiet her down. She threw her cup of tea in his face, and then left the room.

Francine was terminated. The letter of termination cited the company anti-violence and harassment policies.

The most interesting piece of the story arose during mediation, when the grievor told the mediator that she didn’t have a problem with anger – she had a problem with the Filipino employees who were working in the plant. “They are all so tight, always together, and they are taking all the jobs in the plant. None of my nephews, and none of my friends’ kids are getting the new jobs…”

This is not just a problem with anger management. This is a problem with racism. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Mark was new to the parks department. He was thrilled with his new job, and wanted nothing more than to work outside. He was fond of his co-workers, with whom he enjoyed regular Twitter banter about just about anything that came to mind. He commented on the breast size of the girls in the park, and on his view that the non-white cohort of the workforce worked at a slower pace than he and his buddies.

He laughed when one of his co-workers, a black female, replied to one of his tweets by calling him a major jerk. He laughed when she filed a grievance, asserting that he was poisoning the workplace with his offensive Twitter activity, and demanding that management take steps to prohibit the behaviour.

He didn’t laugh when he was suspended from work, pending investigation of the grievance.

This is not just a case of “boys will be boys.” This is discrimination on the grounds of sex and race. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Angel had twenty years’ service with the company, and was pleased to see the posting for dispatcher. He applied immediately, confident that after all those years, he was going to see a less physical, more predictable, and slightly more prestigious position. When he learned that his competition for the job was the new kid – the one who limps – he lost it. His rant included comments about the “rookie cripple” and the “lousy gimp.”

Angel not only lost his bid for the dispatcher job; he was disciplined for violation of the company human rights policy.

This is not just a case of conflict between seniority and human rights principles, it is discrimination against those with disabilities. Canadian workplaces are full of it.

Consider the implications

A workplace in which there are human rights issues and conflicts can expect the following problems:

  • Individuals experience pain and genuinely suffer
  • Employees who are victims of discrimination work poorly and eventually get sick
  • Employer reputation is threatened or impaired
  • When workplace poisoning occurs over social media, the image of that workplace is immediately broadcast widely, without geographic boundaries. Global efforts become global embarrassments.
  • There are hostile feelings among employees
  • Groups and cliques of employees form
  • Individuals and groups become marginalized
  • Hostilities flare up from time to time, raising threats of and actual violence
  • Union executive become burdened
  • Time and effort are invested in individual conflicts
  • The relationship between the union and management suffers
  • Money is spent on external resources – investigators, lawyers, mediators, arbitrators

Individual conflicts might be resolved, but systemic discrimination often remains as a fertile ground for the next individual conflict.

We Have the Resources

Human rights legislation is not new to Canadian workplaces in any jurisdiction. We have a rich history of meaningful anti-discrimination legislation. We have huge bodies of jurisprudence breathing vigour into the statutes. Our collective agreements have come to recognize, respect and embrace human rights principles. We have proactive human rights commissions that provide accessible and practical resources to individuals, unions and employers. We have human rights and anti-discrimination policies by the truckload in every workplace in the land. There is no shortage of educational programming, of policy reviewing, of posters in lunchrooms.

But the Problem Remains

Yet there remains, I respectfully argue, a continuing cloud of discrimination in Canadian workplaces. Discrimination continues to poison the lives of individual employees, burden our unions, bog down our management teams, and over-employ our lawyers, mediators and arbitrators.

It continually surprises me, in the course of practising mediation and arbitration, how frequently these issues arise in our workplaces. How pervasive the problem is.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that although some of us have invested our entire professional lives learning, teaching and fighting human rights issues, every time a workplace welcomes a new employee, that workplace opens its doors to a new influence. That new influence is not likely to have had the benefit of all of that learning, any of that teaching, or any of that fighting.

The challenge of fighting discrimination arises anew every time we hire a new employee.

The task of teaching what human rights are, what discrimination is, and what is and is not permitted in the workplace is a critical task that must be brought alive with every new hire. It is a task that requires vigilant attention. It is a task that is worth repeating and refreshing.

It is Our Responsibility to Teach

With few exceptions, high schools do not teach fundamental human rights concepts. With few exceptions, and unless students pursue specific training, undergraduate university curricula do not include the teaching of fundamental human rights concepts. With few exceptions, career programs and professional schools such as nursing and teaching, do not teach fundamental human rights concepts.

The ultimate responsibility to teach human rights concepts, to explain what discrimination is and why it is prohibited by law, falls upon the employer and the union.

At the risk of repeating a point – when the employer takes on a new hire, when the union welcomes a new member, the likelihood is that although this person has heard of a “human rights code”, they have absolutely no familiarity with it. They are not familiar with its principles. More importantly, they are not familiar with what behaviour is and is not allowed in the workplace. Even with those who have some fundamental training in human rights concepts, there is often a “disconnect” between their appreciation of the concept, and their ability to see what behaviours are and are not discriminatory.

I will go so far as to say that with some frequency, even those have been engaged in management roles or union responsibilities require fundamental education in human rights concepts and practical application of those concepts. In teaching human rights principles at Queen’s IRC, we are constantly impressed with the light bulbs appearing over the heads of those who have been familiar with human rights lingo for years, but have never quite appreciated how the words apply.

In the classroom, seasoned managers are still seen rolling their eyes over the challenge and cost of, for example, accommodating the employee disabled by alcoholism, addressing the needs of a parent whose disabled kid contributes to attendance issues, or coping with the conflicts caused by the gender-shift surgery. Our instructors remind them that human rights protections reflect the deeply held values of Canadian society, delivered as a result of democratic legislative process.

Human rights codes are not stable or one-off enactments. They change from time to time, as the norms and values of the community shift. Forty years ago we did not consider gender a characteristic worthy of workplace respect. Thirty years ago we did not consider alcoholism or drug addiction to be a disability. Twenty years ago we did not consider sexual orientation worthy of protection, family status an issue of workplace concern, or transgendered identity a choice worthy of dignity. As the norms and values of our culture shift, so do our human rights codes and their requirements.

Human rights codes, at their core, reflect the reasons that most of our ancestors came to Canada. They continue to be part of the reason that those from less peaceful parts of the world still make that journey.

So What is the Answer?

It is critical that employers and unions continue to embrace their responsibilities to learn and teach fundamental human rights concepts. It is critical that we continue to teach managers and supervisors what the principles are and how they apply to day to day behaviours. It is critical that each new hire receives a meaningful education about what discrimination means and how the rules apply in their workplace.

No, it is not sufficient to hand a new hire a copy of the human rights policy, and ask them to initial it. That is not teaching – that is mere administration.

No, it is not enough to call employees or members together once every few years to hear someone talk about human rights ideals. That is not teaching either.

No, it is not enough to post the results of the latest arbitration award or court decision that affected your workplace, and have employees learn from the mistakes of others. That may be teaching, but it is very expensive teaching.

How to Teach?

Adults learn from reading, listening, discussing, and then practicing. We have to have an opportunity to absorb the information, and then to apply it. We need the lessons, but then we need to learn how to implement them. We have to practice the lessons. We need to translate the human rights lingo into every day words and actions.

Classrooms, seminars, workshops, on-site sessions, and role play opportunities are essential pieces of in-house training systems for all employees. Adult students must be required to feed the information back to the instructor, in order to break the learning barrier. Human rights training in any environment must be interactive. Examples of behaviours that are and are not appropriate must be provided – again and again.

Managers, supervisors and union executive require clear opportunities to learn what is and is not permissible behaviour. Although front line workers require a degree of human rights training, a workplace culture will not be affected and improved unless managers, supervisors and union executive have a firm grip on the concepts, and are ready to model behaviour appropriately.

We have to teach employees, managers and supervisors appropriate intervention and behavioural correction when others commit acts of discrimination.  Counselling must accompany progressive discipline in this area. (Discipline alone is a poor teacher, as perpetrators become defensive and denying.) This is a tough area to teach in-house. It should include some awareness of “difficult conversations” and skillful feedback.

Just as workplaces assess the risk of workplace violence by surveying their employees, the practice of repeated surveying for discriminatory behaviours and workplace poisoning is advised. Regular scrutiny will track shifting sensibilities, enabling policies and practices to shift as well.

Finally, an acute awareness of human rights in the workplace will translate into a practice of never missing an opportunity. Any time employees gather in one place is a good time to remind them that this workplace, and this union, reflect certain values, and that their behaviour, day in and day out, is a reflection of those values.

There is no downside to getting passionate about human rights in your workplace. It is individuals who affect change, and the small steps that influence the larger shifts.  Train and empower one person to be the advocate for the human rights high ground. It is a valuable investment, and one that will return human rewards.

About the Author

Elaine Newman, Arbitrator and Mediator, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Elaine Newman, Ba, LL.B., LL.M., was called to the bar in Ontario in 1979. Elaine is a very experienced full-time arbitrator and mediator, specializing in labour relations, employment, and human rights matters. She is a teacher, an author, and frequent speaker on labour, employment and human rights issues. Elaine served as Associate Director of the LLM program in Labour Relations and Employment Law at Osgoode Hall Law School 2002 to 2008. She was lead instructor for the Advanced Dispute Resolution Course at Atkinson Faculty, York University for ten years, where she taught the Ethics of Mediation course, and the Advanced Practicum course. She is a frequent guest speaker at Queen’s IRC programs, and is lead instructor of the Strategic Grievance Handling program. Elaine is the author of the online course, “Practical Ethics for Working Mediators”, offered by the ADR Institute of Ontario.  Her textbook, Preventing Violence in the Workplace, is published by Lancaster House, Toronto.

Improve Your Negotiation Outcome By Learning Something New: A Collective Bargaining Success Story

Most people are familiar with the old adage that defines true insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Then why, in labour relations, do we continue using the same processes and methods that have not yielded positive results for us in the past? Well, some parties have learned this lesson and are trying new approaches in their search for win-win outcomes of negotiation.

As a labour relations mediator, I have had the pleasure of working with parties who have realized that they cannot continue doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. This is a mediator’s account of how two parties to a collective agreement did something different. It is a story of how they learned new processes and skills to achieve outcomes that supported their collective priorities and interests. The improvements they saw were not just in the outcome of negotiations, but also in their ability to weather conflict and resolve disputes during the term of their collective agreement.

A Confrontational History

The characters in this true story include a composite fire department and the administration of a small township. The relationship had soured years ago and no one knew quite how to get it back on track. Actually, no one was trying to get it back on track, likely because of the fear of being perceived as favoring the other side. Why would a union member want to have a better relationship with management if they didn’t sympathize with the employer and were looking for a promotion? Why would an employer agent want to have a better relationship with the union? He must not care about the municipality’s priorities and ability to pay. Each party acted in a manner that served its own interests, to the exclusion of the interests of the other party.

This municipality and its firefighters’ union hadn’t negotiated their own collective agreement in many rounds of bargaining. Interest arbitrations are mandatory and binding in the fire sector under the legislative framework in New Brunswick. It could take up to two years after reaching an impasse to schedule, hold the hearing and get a decision back from the arbitrator. Being a small local, it was difficult for members to pay for the immense expense of interest arbitrations and so many fees over the years were paid out of members’ pockets. Four years of union dues during the term of a collective agreement often wasn’t enough to pay for the union side’s fees for the arbitration and their own legal fees.

The Seeds of Change

The municipality had recently experienced a change in command at the Chief Administrative Officer level, which brought along with it all sorts of questions, like, “why are we doing this?”, and “isn’t there a better way?” The CAO asked tough questions and persisted in an attempt to understand what was causing difficulties. He eventually contacted me, a third-party neutral, for help. Two years prior, the parties had received an interest arbitration but couldn’t agree on how it was to be interpreted. Both parties refused to sign off on their arbitrated collective agreement, yet did not wish to resubmit it to the arbitrator with all of the potential associated costs. The union was also open to trying something different, so the parties agreed to come to the table for mediation.

Initially, the parties wanted to stay in separate rooms during the mediation. This often poses a difficulty for mediators in that the parties do not get to experience their own negotiations first-hand. Relying on the mediator to carry messages from room to room removes an important aspect of communication between the parties and does not contribute to their continued success in the absence of that third-party.  I was able to convince the participants to keep everyone in the room and allow only me to ask questions (which, of course, were carefully prepared in advance with the parties). What a difference in how questions are received when they come from a third party who has no interest in the outcome of their dispute!

A few hours later, they began speaking to each other instead of me and were able to resolve the issue that had prevented them from signing their collective agreement for two years.

The mediation process introduced the parties to a new methodology and skills for negotiations; ones that was based on an honest exchange of dialogue instead of attempts to impose one’s position on the other party. The mediation wrapped up with a discussion about interest based negotiations and the benefits of effective labour management committees.

Improved Outcomes

Building on the success of these facilitated discussions, the parties agreed to attempt interest-based negotiations. The process took one third of the time of their historical negotiations and they successfully ratified the agreement with over 90% voting in favour on both sides of the table. They creatively resolved many issues that had been plaguing them for over a decade, and which had often remained status quo in an interest arbitration. The parties had even agreed to new methods and ideas for exploring resolutions to other issues during the term of their new collective agreement. Key outcomes included a major pilot project, renewed commitment to their labour-management committee, and an economically viable agreement that was equally rewarding for members.

What had changed for these parties? How did a change of process yield an outcome that had been so elusive for many years? Together, they began to realize that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result was plaguing their relationship, draining their resources, and leading to outcomes that were undermining the interests of both parties. This was a journey of learning new processes and developing new skills in negotiation and communication. The ones they had been using for so long just weren’t working.

We then started work on the labour-management committee, establishing terms of reference, practicing effective table behaviours and equipping the members with tools for having difficult discussions without devolving into a spiral of name calling, grievances, arbitrations and formal complaints to regulating bodies. The parties acknowledged that the latter was a drain on their resources, which could be better used in resolving their differences. An improved forum for in-term disputes emerged from what used to be seen as a “union-ask and management-deny” committee which served only to produce further documentation of their disputes.

They seem to have maintained the momentum in their new relationship and find that it is much more effective in getting what they need from each other. They seem to have stopped their endless ‘demands’ to each other and approach their issues with a commonality of interests, a united front against the problems that plague their operations. That is not to say that the relationship will not be difficult. There may be arguments, there may be conflicts, and there may be misinterpretations. There may be grievances and arbitrations and complaints; these things all serve an appropriate purpose after all. They may return to using a more traditional method of bargaining with proposals and counter-proposals. But they will be doing so with new communication skills and a knowledge that improved dialogue can lead to improved outcomes, regardless of the type of process they use. They are now able to see the other’s positions as a means to meet their interests, and effectively communicate this vision around a table, or across one.

Learn Something New So You Can Do Something Different

As a mediator, I recognize that interest-based bargaining is not for everyone, nor for every type of conflict. Some parties aren’t comfortable with the interest-based bargaining process, preferring more traditional ones. Whatever process you use, take note of the old adage; if it doesn’t work, do something different. Learn to listen better, take a course in negotiation skills or conflict resolution, use a third-party, talk with others in your profession about what works for them, and how they solved difficult problems. Build your repertoire of skills and processes and study the circumstances under which each might be effective. Improve your negotiation outcomes by learning something new so that you are able to do something different when the time comes.

About the Author

Jennifer Davis is formerly the Assistant Director of Human Resources for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in New Brunswick. She has over 10 years of labour relations experience, having negotiated public sector collective agreements. Since 2011, Jennifer has worked as a Conciliation and Mediation Specialist with the Province of New Brunswick. As a third-party neutral, she works with employers and unions in the private, public and quasi-public sectors offering formal and preventive mediation services.

Jennifer holds the Queen’s IRC Labour Relations Certificate and has completed two National Mediator Training Programs through a partnership between the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and Provincial Labour Relations agencies.

Strategic Grievance Management in Today’s Unionized Environment

The word “strategic” gets thrown around pretty loosely these days – it’s one of those business buzz words meant to instill confidence that we’ve thought this through and it’s all under control: trust us, we’ve got a strategic plan!

But there’s more to it than just calling something “strategic”.  The term “strategic” implies there is a thoughtful, organized strategy guiding your efforts; that a particular issue has been viewed in the broader context and your decision to proceed is based on the impacts that decision will have across the organization. More so than any other time in history, employers in today’s unionized workplaces need to view their union-management relationships, and their dispute resolution efforts, through a holistic, strategic lens. We can no longer afford to deal with issues and complaints in isolation. As bargaining agents become more sophisticated in using dispute mechanisms to further their corporate agendas, so too must employers.

There are three key elements to being strategic about conflict management:

  • Know where you want to be 3, 5 and even 10 years out in terms of your relationship with your bargaining agent partners;
  • Develop dispute resolution mechanisms and goals that help get you there; and,
  • Keep your eye on the end game – don’t be distracted along the way.

Analyze your response to each conflict or grievance in light of your future goals, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does this grievance tell us about the state of our relationship(s) at the local level?
  • Is the grievance really just an individual dispute, or does it represent a matter of principle to either party?
  • How is this grievance connected to other issues or disputes in the workplace?
  • Will settling (or pursuing) this grievance get us closer to (or divert us from) our longer term goals?
  • Might our response to this grievance jeopardize our relationship with the union?
  • Can we resolve the grievance in a way that results in an incremental change that will ultimately get us where we want to be?
  • Is this the right fact situation on which to arbitrate the issue – should we settle this and look for a more favourable set of facts to put before an arbitrator?
  • Could settling this grievance in the union’s favour represent an opportunity to trade off for something that is more important to the employer?
  • Rather than pursuing arbitration on this grievance, would we be better served by dealing with the underlying issue through dialogue with the union, whether through regular/standing union-management committees, or more formal mediation processes?

As valued strategic partners, labour relations professionals must be accountable for assisting clients to manage relationships with their unions. So make sure you’ve considered all the implications of a decision to settle, mediate or arbitrate – there’s just no sense settling a grievance if all it does is result in less clarity and further conflict. Look at every conflict as a potential opportunity to improve the relationship between the parties, or provide clarity to the principles and rules that govern the workplace. Now that’s strategic!

About the Author

Lori Aselstine

Lori Aselstine has over 33 years of experience with the Government of Ontario, most of which was in the human resources (HR) field. She held positions such as director of Ontario Public Service labour relations, director of Broader Public Sector labour relations and director of strategic human resources business. During her time with the Ontario Public Service, Lori established a reputation as a skilled relationship-builder and problem-solver. She retired in 2014 to work full-time on her organic farm.

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