Managing People and Labour Relations in Municipal Government

Managing People and Labour Relations in Municipal Government - Survey ResultsAlthough there has been a lot of research on the links between human resource management and workplace performance, much of the work is focused on the private sector. Moreover, there is less research addressing labour relations practices in municipal government. In discussions with government officials and in presentations to individuals employed in government there has been a particularly strong interest in the management of human resources and labour relations. Among the questions that frequently arise are: (1) what are other municipal government workplaces doing to manage human resources? and (2) what is happening in terms of labour relations in local government workplaces? The current article is aimed at addressing these questions from a practitioner perspective.

The results of this study are based on questionnaire responses from more than 250 municipal government workplaces across Canada. The survey was conducted in 2009. Respondents varied somewhat in size; 45% of the workplaces had 25 or fewer employees, 33% had 26 to 100 employees, and 22% had more than 100 employees. About 57% of the workplaces were unionized and 58% reported that their overhead costs were lower when compared to similar municipalities.

Young Workers and the Union Movement in Canada

HR Reporter roundtable - Peter Edwards, Bill Murnighan, Elaine Newman and Anna Goldfinch

Peter Edwards, Bill Murnighan, Elaine Newman and Anna Goldfinch

Many young workers don’t feel connected to the labour movement. They see it as a relic from previous generations, something that may have helped their parents but isn’t helping them, and something that might even be preventing them from obtaining good jobs.  So what can unions do to win over young workers?

This question was discussed at a recent roundtable discussion on the future of unions in the private sector hosted by the Canadian HR Reporter, and sponsored by Queen’s IRC.

Todd Humber, the Canadian HR Reporter’s managing editor, moderated the roundtable discussion. He asked panelists how unions are perceived by the youth, and what unions will need to do to win over the hearts and minds of young workers.

Anna Goldfinch, the national executive representative for the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario, represents 300,000 students in the province of Ontario.  She said that what they are seeing is a job market that’s leaving young people behind.

“The youth unemployment rate is double that of the adult unemployment rate here in the province and we’re seeing a rise in precarious work and underemployment for youth.”

“We’re drowning in debt, because we can’t find jobs, and the jobs that we can find are non-unionized.”

Elaine Newman, an arbitrator and mediator, and instructor for Queen’s IRC, acknowledges the issue of youth underemployment. “They are out of school, with student debt, with nothing but energy and ambition, and they are shut out.”

“As unions reinvent themselves and re-examine the fundamental guiding historic principles like seniority, occasionally someone gets up the nerve to say, is seniority working now that we have this valuable resource that we can’t employ?”

Newman said the value of seniority as a guiding principle is eroded when the young people who can’t get into the system are the sons and daughters of a union’s most senior members.  “All of the sudden the conversation changes and shifts a little bit.  There’s much less conversation about selling out the older people in favor of the younger people, when it’s actually their own children who they’re anxious to see employed.”

Bill Murnighan, the director of Unifor’s research department, says that there’s all sorts of issues in front of the labour market and Canadian workers, including job creation and seniority.

“Seniority and other systems work wonderfully when you have a growing economy.  It’s very simple for people at the bottom to feel that they’re on a ladder that’s moving up.  You have decent pensions, people retire, they go out, and the machinery works.”

However, when you have a stalled or weak economy, these things become more problematic, Murnighan said. But that hasn’t stopped Unifor from trying to recruit more young people.

“We say, let’s keep a decent pension so that people can retire, so there’s actual job creation.  We also try to create employment by getting investment in our facilities.”

Unifor, which represents about 300,000 employees across 20 sectors, is also targeting workplaces with precarious jobs. “One other thing we see is a growing trend around precarious workers and two-tier work,” said Murnighan. “We will not embrace that – the idea that, you can work for $27 dollars an hour and the person beside you will work for $12, and that will be forever more.”

Murnighan said while Unifor wants to create opportunities for youth, they won’t do it by selling out with two-tier work.

What can unions do to attract young workers?

Young workers don’t see themselves fitting into union culture because it doesn’t reflect the lifestyle and the work that they participate in, Goldfinch commented.

“Messaging that comes from unions like ‘the folks that brought you the weekend’ is incredibly effective for those who have weekends. Increasingly, young people don’t actually have weekends – their weekends might be a Monday and every second Thursday,” said Goldfinch.

“They see unions as organizations that represented people like their parents, people who were in Monday to Friday 9 to 5 type of employment, and that’s not for them.

“I think if unions are going to make themselves relevant to youth and to students, they need to start communicating that they are applicable in any work force. The benefits that our parents enjoyed when they were working in a unionized environment are available to young people.”  She said that unions will reflect the priorities of young people as more youth start to participate in them.

Goldfinch said that this very educated, but indebted generation, is in trouble. “I think we need to widen in the conversation to, why are youth and students in precarious jobs? Why aren’t they starting businesses more? Why aren’t they finding jobs in their field or at least good entry-level jobs that have on-the-job training where companies are investing in them as employees? We don’t see that happening.”

Ted Mallett, Vice-President and Chief Economist for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said a better future for young workers will come from being entrepreneurial and self-reliant.

He said they see lots of students starting businesses and hitting the ground running. “That’s a positive thing. The Youth Business Foundation is strong and vibrant. It’s creating this kind of mentorship in the universities that has been very positive. The idea that young people are only starting their own firms because they can’t find a job for a big unionized company, that’s not true at all.”

“The rule of thumb is that for every one person that starts a business because they find no other options, there were two or three others who started businesses because they have the confidence to do something,” said Mallett.

“Even with the decline in private sector unions we’ve seen an increase in the standard of living. There have been bumps and scrapes along the way because of the business cycle, but on balance we’re seeing a much stronger self-reliant economy than we’ve ever seen before in Canada.”

Jamie Knight, a partner at labour and employment law firm Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto, said we need to work towards a cooperative workforce. He said there’s a need to discuss and reexamine the defined benefit pensions, which are the cornerstone of the trade union movement.  And, he suggested that there’s alternatives to the two-tier system, which impact young workers the most.

“There’s graduated wage systems where there’s an expanded wage grid, where it may take you many, many years to catch up, but there’s eventually a catch up.  That’s quite different from, as Bill described it, a forever two-tier system.”

The outlook for young workers

Anna Goldfinch paints a grim picture of life for young workers. “Tuition fees have rapidly outpaced everything including inflation, food, rent, transportation. Debt is skyrocketing – we’ve hit 19 billion dollars of just federal student loans in this country.”

She said it’s taking longer for students to get jobs, and even longer to get good jobs. “Everything in our lives is being prolonged. It’s harder to get the first job, it’s harder to then get the second job, and it’s harder to start a career. You’re getting your house and your mortgage and starting your family later. We’re seeing lives prolonged, lives put on pause because we haven’t figured out how to invest in youth like we used to. We haven’t figured out how to include them, whether it be by providing them with education, investing in their skills and training, both in the public sector and the private sector.”

But Peter Edwards, Vice-President of human resources and labour relations for Canadian Pacific, and a speaker with Queen’s IRC, disagrees.  He said that the issues that today’s youth are facing are very similar to the youth of previous generations.

“When I graduated, it was hard to get a job, and the first job is the hardest.  And then I disappeared into a vacuum for about five years, and then employers everywhere discovered us and wanted us.”

“Were there hard times before for youth unemployment? Yes. And there will be again.”

He reassured the youth that the delayed onset of getting to those stages of having a home, a mortgage, and a family – they will all come.

“We’re going to have all these challenges and all these problems, and the path forward will always be unclear. I think that everybody’s got a little bit of the solution, but there is no monolithic solution or problem.”

Edwards said it’s all about how we adapt, and speed with which we adapt to the changes. “I think society now asks us to adapt faster, whether or not we want that, we’re not given that choice anymore.”

Watch the Canadian HR Reporter’s full 16-minute video on Youth and the union movement in Canada:

Read our first article from the Canadian HR Reporter Roundtable on the future of unions in the private sector:
The Future of Unions in Canada’s Private Sector: How Can Unions Overcome their PR Problem?

The Future of Unions in Canada’s Private Sector: How Can Unions Overcome their PR Problem?

 How can unions overcome their PR problem?Unions face many negative perceptions, such as the notion that union workers are lazy, under worked, have job security for life, and enjoy gold-plated benefits and pension packages that others can only dream about. In light of this, how can unions overcome their PR problem?

This question was one of many that was put to a panel of labour relations practitioners and experts recently, at a roundtable discussion sponsored by Queen’s IRC, and hosted by the Canadian HR Reporter. Todd Humber, the Canadian HR Reporter’s managing editor, moderated the roundtable discussion.

In the first of three videos to be released by the Canadian HR Reporter, panelists weighed in on the future of unions in the private sector, discussed the PR problem unions may or may not have, made suggestions about what can be done to overcome it, and looked to the future for Canadian unions.

In this article, I have summarized some of the main thoughts and quotes from the panelists. You can view the full 12-minute video here:

Peter Edwards, Vice-President, Human Resources and Labour Relations, Canadian Pacific, and guest speaker with Queen’s IRC

Peter Edwards identified the stereotype of who is a union member, and offered some advice for union leadership for the future.

“When you ask young people, when you ask anybody that is even remotely connected to the world, they understand the role of unions in providing what we have today. They are a key driver for the creation of the middle class, for the reduction of work hours, the paid vacation, all sorts of benefits that we all enjoy. I think we can all agree on that.

“People say, ‘that was great, but what does the future hold for me?'”

Peter said that regardless of whether you call it a PR war or an advertising campaign, unions need to look to the future. “How do you create a vision for people? How do you put the leadership behind it? And how do you execute against that offering and attract people to what you do?

“There is a certain image that [union members] are predominantly blue collar or they’re government workers. And gee, I’m neither of those, so where do I fit in? What’s the message? Where are the people that are like me? And what can you offer me in the future?”

Peter offered an example of one way that union members may not feel like a cohesive group. “We tend to split up our benefits packages so you get exactly this, you get exactly that, and we can tailor it to your individual needs, but we don’t think of the broader need. I think that’s kind of led to the attitude that we are all on our own.”

Peter offered some advice to unions. “If the unions are going to make progress, they’ve got to make it compelling for people to belong to that group that has an affiliation and an image for them, that they can aspire to and be part of.”

Elaine Newman, mediator, arbitrator, and facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Strategic Grievance Handling program

Elaine Newman said that part of the challenge that unions may face is the attitudes about the history of unions, and young people’s attitudes towards unions.

“There are very real demographic shifts, but there’s also, I suggest, a very negative campaign that the union has to address as well.” She said there are negative and inaccurate perceptions about how unions arose, what significance they have, what value they have in maintaining a strong middle class and creating a stable workforce that can withstand economic fluctuation.

“The best possible tool, the best possible weapon that the unions have is education. The process of addressing the PR problem is one of education.” She said that people want to know: “What have the unions done, and more importantly what have they done for me lately?”

Bill Murnighan, Director of the Research Department at UNIFOR

Bill Murnighan began by debunking the stereotype that union workers ‘have it easy’.

“The private sector is going through tremendous job loss, stagnating wages and reductions in their incomes in a variety of ways, so the idea of jobs for life, and gold-plated working conditions is not the reality.”

Bill admitted that there are some highly-paid unionized workers. “But there are all sorts organized workers in hotels, in long-term care facilities, in grocery stores and elsewhere, who are far from having great security or wonderful conditions.

“I think one of the key messages we’ve heard over the last several years, is the changing dynamic that people are not resenting people from working-class—the middle-class Canadians who have good jobs—and rather turning their attention to the idea that ‘I should have those things too. Why can I not achieve a good standard of living or security in the workplace rather than trying to focus on taking away from those who already have it?'”

Bill said it’s important to focus on good PR and maintaining a positive image of the union in the community. “We continue to do our job on the ground with our membership in the communities, but also ensuring that we are seen as a voice for workers who are excluded, who are marginalized, or who are on the outside the labour market.

“I think we have to be very careful and clear that that we’re not resented by whole parts of working Canadians and that’s a fundamental challenge.”

Bill went on to refute the point that today’s workers are ‘content as is’ and don’t want to be part of a union.

“We hear regularly from our members, from people in the community, from youth, that they have significant concerns about what is evolving in the workplace and they’re looking for some way to improve that.

“I think a lot of people are concerned about their security, a lot of people are concerned about the future. They’re concerned also about their kids, and their kids’ future, and about what quality of jobs there are.

“There are different studies out there that say people actually do want to join unions, and that people are pleased to be in union. They support their organizations. The statistics show somewhere around 50,000 people a year join a union for the first time in Canada across the country.”

Bill said he doesn’t see the fundamental issue being unions. “I think the questions are about, what do Canadians want in the workplace and from their jobs? I think it’s a much broader question than about whether unions are there or not.”

Ted Mallett, Vice-President and Chief Economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business

Ted Mallett does not agree with Bill Murnighan about Canadians being unhappy with their jobs He said that generally most people are very satisfied with their jobs.

“We’re not talking about a PR problem, we’re talking about the general public having a fundamentally different perspective on the workplace than unions.

“The fact is, job satisfaction is driven by factors around communication, the quality of the decision-making, and your involvement in running the business. The workplace is evolving. We’re seeing higher-educated people, we’re seeing people who are more discerning with information, and they’re choosing—all surveys show—that they’d much rather work in non-unionized workplaces than a unionized ones. There are also a portion of unionized workers who would rather not be unionized.”

Ted said these kinds of shifts are important to note, and to make sure that we have the appropriate public policies to ensure that it is not a union-centered or employer-centered perspective.

Jamie Knight, Partner, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti

Labour lawyer Jamie Knight predicts a PR problem that unions will be facing in the next few years.

“The elephant in the room is the sweeping change in legislation in the United States where there are more and more right-to-work states.

“There has been significant legislative changes in Saskatchewan. We have a major political party in Ontario, in a minority government situation, that has a white paper that clearly spells out its intention to bring forward legislation to transform Ontario’s Labour Relations Act, and move towards a system whereby there is no dues deduction automatically enforced, when a trade union secures the right to represent workers in workplace.

“That’s the PR campaign that is going to play out, and it’s going to play out in the next Ontario election. There’s a very real possibility that the next government will be formed by a party that proposes to follow the recent example of Michigan, which is a primary competitor for Ontario jobs. That’s the campaign that I think is going to be the interesting one.

“The issue—and it’s not my issue, it’s the political issue on the table—is whether or not the Rand formula is going to be done away with in the province of Ontario. And if the Rand formula, which provides for automatic dues deduction in a unionized environment is done away with, how does the trade union respond to that, in a scenario where dues essentially become voluntary as opposed to imposed.”

Implementing an Interest-Focused Collective Bargaining Strategy

Implementing an Interest-Focused Collective Bargaining StrategyI was a professional Fire Fighter in the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), for many years before I got directly involved as a member of our Local’s negotiating team. Although I was always interested in our Association’s activities, and I regularly attended meetings, I never considered myself “involved enough” to run for any committee or executive position for those first 15 years of my career.

I’m not certain that there was any particular event that piqued my interest in becoming a member of our Local’s negotiating team, but I was frustrated over the regular cycle of failed negotiations and expensive interest arbitrations. It seemed to me, from the outside looking in, that history kept finding a way of repeating itself and that perhaps I could bring about some change to the process of negotiations.

As a newly elected member of our Local’s negotiating team in the mid 90’s, I eagerly approached every opportunity to learn about the issues and process as we approached a fresh round of negotiations. I was immediately taken aback with how often the question of “why are we doing that” or “why are we asking for that” was answered with “because it’s the way we’ve always done it.” It made no sense to me. The way we had always done it typically led to an impasse and, with strikes and/or lock-outs prohibited, we were then on to interest arbitrations. The inability to negotiate our own deal came at a great cost for our Local and municipality from both a financial and relationship perspective.

Public sector negotiations in Ontario were particularly contentious during these times, as the social contract years were coming to a close. The ruling provincial NDP government had frozen public sector wages in 1993 and labour organizations at both the provincial and municipal levels were anxious to make up for lost time. After suffering through several years of a wage freeze, the experienced members of our negotiations team were ready for a tough fight and the battle lines were drawn. Both sides took a hard-lined, principled approach to bargaining. I was puzzled by the lack of real communications and found the experience to be extremely frustrating.

After two rounds of negotiations on the Association’s side of the bargaining table, and before I could affect any change, I was promoted into a Senior Officer’s position and soon found myself on the other side of the table, as a member of the City’s bargaining team. Much to my dismay, I quickly discovered that I was right in my assumptions and that my new team utilized the same tactics and functioned under a similar philosophy to the Association’s. Both sides were stuck in their old ways, unwilling to change regardless of the cost. Intelligent, well-intentioned people were unable to change, in spite of the fact their battle-tested ways were not producing positive results, and had not in a very long time.

  • Both sides were submitting a long list of demands, afraid that if they didn’t have as many as the other side, they wouldn’t have as many “traders” and their losses would outnumber their gains.
  • Both sides stuck to unreasonable positions, afraid that they would be the first to “give in” and would appear weak.
  • The mood at the table was generally miserable. You couldn’t be “pleasant” or the other side may misinterpret that for “happy” and use that to state that you really don’t need what you’re asking for.
  • You didn’t dare share any more information than absolutely necessary; always holding all of your cards close to your chest.
  • The reason why you wanted or needed an item wasn’t important. Why was never shared and the why question was never asked. If an item was in your long list of demands, it was deemed important, whether you needed it or not.
  • Costs associated with any proposal were guarded like State secrets, without exception, and by both sides.
  • It was all or nothing, and winning was everything!

Yet who was really winning? Each side had wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, only to have their collective agreement re-written by a board of arbitration. Decisions on business operations and the good and welfare of the employees were being made by a third party. Neither side was determining their own destiny, nor were they seeing their real interests met. No one was truly winning.

Benjamin Franklin has been credited with first coining the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It was an insane notion to believe that repeating our same mistakes year after year would yield a freely negotiated collective agreement when it had so rarely done so in the past. While I’m pointing the finger at my teammates, it’s important to note as well that I wasn’t blameless. Over the years, with time spent on both sides of the table, I had picked up bad habits that were inhibiting me from effectively negotiating. Therefore, I took it upon myself to start the change by first altering my own bad habits.

I began by participating in seminars on successful bargaining skills. I read books and articles and finally had an opportunity to attend the Negotiation Skills program at Queen’s IRC. I came away from the program convinced that an interest-focused approach to bargaining was the ticket to successful negotiations and the key to breaking the bad habits back home.

Having sat through an interest-based bargaining seminar that was poorly received, while a member of the Fire Fighter’s Association Executive just a few years before, I knew that I could not walk in and change things overnight. I also felt that I could not announce a change in strategy. Instead of labeling the change as a shift to an interest-focused approach, I choose to subtlety introduce the changes, first in the preparation of our proposals and then at the bargaining table.

  • It’s not always necessary to label your new bargaining philosophy. Often a series of gentle nudges will work more effectively than pushing people in a direction they may not know they need to move in.
  • Know the people that you are dealing with. A thorough knowledge of their habits, wants, needs, desires and idiosyncrasies will help you to break those habits and tool your approach to getting them to buy into an interest-focused strategy.
  • It started with our management mandate. Gone were the “traders” that weighed down our proposals and wasted so much time. All items in our proposal package represented legitimate interests, and were truly needed. It wasn’t an easy sell to our team but it quickly sent a clear message to the other side.
  • As chief spokesperson on the management bargaining team, I started to ask the “why question” and listened to the answers, interpreting the interests of the Association in an effort to satisfy them while taking care of our own.
  • I took the time to explain our interests, whether or not the Association spokesperson asked for an explanation. It soon became clear that there were no traders or fillers. Our proposals all represented real needs.
  • I made every effort to be “nice” when possible, fully aware of the fact that the relationship both sides share outlasts our time across from each other at the bargaining table. That doesn’t mean we took the exercise any less seriously than in years gone by; we just didn’t sit stone-faced for the sole purpose of being miserable.
  • I shared costing data, including the cost of benefits.
  • Bargaining became a year-round activity. A thorough discussion of issues prior to formal negotiations meant we were not starting from scratch at the table, and that was a great time-saver.
  • A considerable amount of effort was put into identifying common interests and synergies, again, without labeling it as an interest-focused exercise.
  • We met as a team, post-negotiations, to identify what worked and why. Eventually, after some success, we did so with the other side as well.

I am not going to pretend that the transformation was easy or that we found instant success. However, we did successfully freely negotiate a collective agreement, on our own and without third-party intervention, during our first round of negotiations. As hard as old habits are hard to break, we proved it is not impossible. Our negotiating styles on both sides of the table have gone through a subtle transformation and we have successfully negotiated 12 consecutive years of collective agreements.

I have also witnessed a positive change in the day-to-day relationship between our senior management/HR team and the Association executive. A thorough review of the issues discussed at our regular labour/management meetings is a great way to prepare for an upcoming round of collective bargaining.

What was broken; appears to have been fixed!

About the Author

Andy MacDonaldAndy holds Queen’s IRC Certificates in Labour Relations, Advanced Labour Relations, and Organization Development Fundamentals, and he participated in the program on negotiations at the Harvard Law School. Andy holds a Bachelor of Science degree and has also studied at York University and the Ontario Fire College.Andy MacDonald was a member of the executive of the Brampton Professional Fire Fighters Association (BPFFA), IAFF Local 1068, for many years before joining the management ranks. He is currently the Fire Chief with the City of Brampton, Ontario. While a member of the BPFFA executive, Andy participated in collective agreement negotiations and gained the union’s perspective. As a member of the negotiating team on the other side of the table, Andy now plays a key role as a chief spokesperson of the Corporation’s bargaining team. Andy’s insight into negotiations from both sides of the negotiation table gives him an interesting perspective into the dynamics of collective bargaining.

He spends much of his free time aiding in many charitable causes and was the driving force behind the construction of his dream, the world’s first Fire/Life Safety Education Centre in Brampton. Andy’s other charitable exploits include rappelling off the CN Tower in 1985 to raise money for a Toronto burn unit, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.

From Confrontation to Collaboration: Making Union-Management Relationships Work

With thirty years of experience working in a unionized environment, I have observed a variety of collaborative relationships between employer and union. Much of my career has been spent helping to evolve the management-union relationship from confrontation to collaboration. I was directly responsible for nurturing and supporting this relationship for six years, from 2000 until 2006. I served as the Central Union Management/ Staffing Liaison Officer for the Government of Saskatchewan. The Government of Saskatchewan and General Employees Union (SGEU) jointly funded this position. In this article, I share my insights on the collaborative relationship.

The Collaborative Relationship: Why Bother?

The management-union relationship feels like an arranged or forced marriage without the option of divorce. You’re in it together, so you might as well try to get along and perhaps you can find some commonality of interests for the betterment of the workplace. If the collaborative approach is to be effective, there are some things to take into consideration:

  • The need for a continuous relationship
  • How to meet the needs and goals of each party
  • How to minimize the negative effects on each party
  • Cost containment
  • How to achieve a solution by consensus, where both parties agree, as this promotes a greater chance of success and acceptance

In my opinion, there have been different forms of collaborative relationships that have achieved various levels of success and failure throughout government during the last few decades in Canada. The newest are the lean initiatives, which primarily identify efficiencies in work processes. This is done by tapping into the knowledge of the organization’s employees. This process uses mapping and is able to identify cost savings through increased use of mathematics and charts. The common thread amongst the collaborative approaches is a process that allows for input from its employees. This input is sought prior to making decisions, so it enables the employer to make more informed and effective decisions.

Where to Start?

In order to move towards a more collaborative relationship:

  • Upper levels of management must demonstrate the desire to initiate this type of relationship change with its union counterparts. If the organization provides direction without explaining the benefits available under the change in relationship, then success will likely be short-lived.
  • The two parties, management and the elected union representatives, have their respective roles and there needs to be recognition and acceptance of these roles.
  • Management’s primary role is to make decisions in order to operate the organization in a safe, efficient, and profitable manner.
  • The union’s primary role in the collaborative relationship is to improve the working conditions for its members. Unions usually have different communication avenues, which may diverge from the organization’s, but these can be tapped into by management to increase communication.
  • If the union representatives are allowed to provide input prior to the decisions management are required to make, then hopefully better decisions are made by incorporating input from front-line employees. In addition, the decisions made will be better received by those most affected.
  • The interests of the two groups may diverge in the short-term, but they can be made compatible, since both parties need an efficient and profitable organization to survive.

From Confrontation to Collaboration

Promoting the collaborative relationship is much like fostering and supporting an infant in the early stages of development. Continuous support and open, frequent communication is required early in the relationship and will assist in building trust between the parties. This scaffolding, or support, will diminish as the relationship ages and levels of trust are established. There may be an inherent level of distrust from the many years of participating in the confrontational environment. This may be difficult to overcome and will only be successful if the commitment is demonstrated from upper management. Senior-level management will need to take the initiative to instruct and convince the middle managers of the benefits and the potential for administrative savings that could result in this type of relationship.

A consensus decision-making model ensures that there is no eroding of authority from either side of the relationship. In a consensus decision-making model, consensus must be achieved prior to implementing any changes. Management must operate the business, so if there is no consensus on a decision that has to be made, then management may make it without the involvement of the other party. This is used to keep both parties engaged in the collaborative relationship until all options are exhausted. It is acceptable not to use this process for all the issues, but rather, decide which ones might be solved using this approach.

Union representatives and the membership will have to enjoy some benefits from participating in the decision-making process. It is best to start with some non-controversial issues, where benefits can be easily obtained. It is important to celebrate successes in a very public way, as this promotes union acceptance of the new relationship amongst its membership. Trust is very fragile and there is a need to place special emphasis on communicating frequently with the union and management. This builds a level of trust incrementally with the union and vice versa. Any disputes or disagreements will need to be worked through quickly and management needs to explain clearly why a union’s desired change might not be possible. Trust is crucial to establishing a solid foundation on which to build the desired collaborative relationship.

The Collaborative Relationship: Examples of Possible Benefits

An Uncomplicated Example

In order to sustain this relationship change, there will need to be successes achieved. For instance, if management presents organizational financial reports and affords the union the opportunity to ask questions, this creates a forum for providing information. If the union has the opportunity to understand the pressures and demands the corporation is facing, then the parties can discuss issues of mutual concern, while at the same time not yielding any of management’s authority. These are simple things that do not require a lot of resources, but demonstrate a change in how management functions.

An Intermediate Example

This is an example where the union can demonstrate its commitment to the relationship, but not yield its authority obtained through collective agreements. For example, a Department/Ministry in government was in a position where they were overstaffed, due largely to equipment efficiencies obtained through a new fleet of snowplows. Several locations were no longer needed and employees were going to be out of work. The decision was made to hold a draft, based on seniority, to choose locations and positions to be transferred, when employees’ positions were affected. The employer agreed to transfer employees to the chosen location and provide all benefits under the collective agreement. Thus, this agreement did not infringe on the union rights and the employees’ period of uncertainty regarding their future employment was drastically reduced. This lack of job security may cause unrest for months within the organization, negatively affecting employee morale and productivity. The draft was held and all decisions were made within two days, through a jointly developed committee, using the interest-based, problem-solving process. Both sides reaped significant benefits, while incurring minimal costs in terms of money or authority. This is an example of the potential that a well-established collaborative relationship has in the workplace.

A Complex Example

Another example of the benefits that can be achieved is related to the issue of accommodations made for injured workers returning to the workplace. The union and the employer may experience frustrations regarding injured workers’ prolonged absence and delayed return to active employment. The union may advance grievances, due to a lack of accommodations for its member or a member filing human rights complaints. The employer might incur the perceived liabilities surrounding the grievances/human rights complaints and have no mechanism for accomplishing a successful return to work from injury. In an actual case, the employer and the union worked on this issue jointly from 1997 until 2000. During the collective bargaining, the joint committee recommended language to the parties of the collective agreement that was eventually included in the collective agreement. The language allowed for superseding of normal staffing provisions to enable qualified employees on adjudicated injury/disability claims first access to vacancies over employees with more seniority. In exchange for this provision, once the employee provided medical clearance to return to work, the employer had six months to find a suitable accommodation or to begin to pay the employee’s full salary until a position was found. This involved balanced concession on both sides to put these provisions in place. These were leading-edge provisions at the time, still exist today, and have resulted in both the employer and employees enjoying better provisions for injured workers.

Negative Pressures

As with most initiatives that promote change, there will be some individuals who will not be in favor of the change. If you fail to understand this and do not put strategies in place to minimize the negative influences and pressures, the collaborative relationship will not survive.

  • Both union and management have increased opportunities for improved communications throughout the levels of the organization, but this can be a two-sided sword. If management is deemed by the union membership to be insincere in its commitment to the new relationship, this will become apparent.
  • The union would deliver the jointly developed messages and gather input to be shared in the decision-making process. The union might also be facing negative pressures from facets of its membership, with allegations of being co-opted by management into a more submissive relationship.

Collective bargaining becomes more continuous through this process, particularly when it leads to improvements in the workplace. It is, however, extremely difficult to bargain monetary improvements, as the two parties have divergent interests in this regard. When there are opportunities to discuss non-monetary issues, quite often the discussions produce a result that neither party envisioned prior to examining the issues to be negotiated. A solution reached between the parties is almost always more desirable than one imposed.

In the collaborative environment, the participants play a very important role. They can be either direct contributors to the success or directly attributed to the failure of change in their relationships. Union elections do not always produce the most capable participants, as there are no minimum qualification thresholds in place. Education for the participants should be detailed and ongoing to ensure the participants are fully trained. As long as the union membership and management commitment continues, so does the evolution of the relationship. The success of this relationship will need to be celebrated to ensure continued support.

Canadian values are such that the majority of people prefer collaboration to confrontation as an approach to resolving disputes. To enjoy long-term success, organizations should include some form of collaboration in their working relationship with its employees. This assists in developing a fully engaged participatory workforce for the 21st century.

About the Author

Rod McCorriston, SGEU, Director of Labour RelationsRod McCorriston started working for the Government of Saskatchewan in 1982 as an Equipment Operator for a Department/Ministry. He was elected to the Public Service Negotiating Committee and was responsible for bargaining the 1994-97 and 1997-00 collective bargaining agreements. In 2000, he was afforded the opportunity to perform work as the Central Union Management Committee/ Staffing Liaison Officer during the next six years. After this experience, he began his current career with the SGEU. He has held several positions with SGEU; as a Long Term Disability Advocate, Staff Representative, and his current role as Director of Labour Relations. Rod is also a recent graduate of the Queen’s IRC Labour Relations Certificate program.

Training Employees is Key to Effective Union-Management Relationships

Queen's University in Kingston, ONFor practitioners in Queen’s University’s Human Resources (HR) department, the past two years have brought about a number of changes in the way they do their jobs. Two years ago, there were four union contracts at the University, and today, the tenth contract is being negotiated. With about 80% of the University’s employees now unionized, Al Orth, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) at Queen’s University, says the environment has changed significantly. The University had to think ahead about how it was going to support its employees in this new world. “For the vast majority of our supervisors and managers, managing in a unionized environment will be a new experience,” Al says.

Al immediately saw the importance of investing in training for the front-line workers who will be dealing with the application of the collective agreements on a daily basis. “It is important that we, as an institution, provide this kind of background, and train individuals in these key management and supervisory roles to continue to build positive employee relations.”

With the goal of achieving a respectful and productive work environment, the Queen’s HR department reached out to one of the University’s own Centres, the Industrial Relations Centre (IRC), to provide training for the University’s supervisors and managers. Al was familiar with the IRC’s programs, including the Managing Unionized Environments (MUE) program, and says choosing the IRC to provide the training was a natural partnership.

Queen’s IRC Director, Paul Juniper, says that the IRC is very happy to be working with Queen’s HR on this university-wide initiative. “Our commitment to adult learning principles and skill-based training is recognized across Canada and now, in Kingston, at our home institution. The opportunity to work with HR professionals is why the IRC exists, so it is particularly pleasing for us to work at home with Queen’s HR.”

In August 2012, the IRC ran four, two-day custom versions of its Managing Unionized Environments program for University staff. Additional programs for December 2012, January 2013, and February 2013 were then added. The unique program is facilitated by Gary Furlong, a mediator who has spent many years teaching collective bargaining to union, management, and joint union-management teams. He has often been asked to help rebuild union-management relationships that have broken down, and knows first-hand why an effective union management relationship is so critical to an organization.

“One of the key reasons for that breakdown is a lack of understanding of what an effective union-management relationship is, how the collective agreement operates, and even what the collective agreement says.” Developing the skills to manage this relationship is key to creating a strong, effective work environment, according to Gary.

In the program, Gary emphasizes the critical relationship between front-line leadership in management and front-line union representation.

“The IRC’s approach to labour relations is rooted in a philosophy of strong collaboration, combined with a set of practical skills and tools that all front-line leaders can apply immediately in many day-to-day situations,” says Gary. “This collaborative approach fits the academic and collegial culture of an institution like Queen’s very effectively.”

While the MUE program is typically offered as an open-enrollment program, the University chose to have a custom program so that the content could be tailored to its specific needs. Stephanie Noel, Queen’s IRC Business Development Manager, works with clients to design content. “When we design a custom program in-house, we are able to identify the top two or three organizational hotspots in addition to the content we deliver with every MUE public program.” Stephanie says that Queen’s IRC considers both the management and union perspectives, and then creates specific scenarios to teach participants the best way to approach the key issues in the organization.

Both Paul and Stephanie feel that this approach delivers high value for an organization like Queen’s University.

Al agrees, and is pleased that the custom program allowed the University to bring very current and relevant information to its employees. “It’s a unique program because it provides both management and union perspectives. There’s no other program like that, so we are fortunate to be able to provide that type of training to our supervisors and managers.”

Al said that, going into the training, many managers and supervisors hadn’t had any exposure to unions, and they were unsure of how things would change. “It helped them to better understand union-management relations, showed that they can work, and how they can work positively.” Participants learned that the relationship doesn’t need to change. “They still need to practice good HR skills, and it can still be an environment that is founded on positive employee relations.”

Participants with all levels of experience are able to benefit from this training. “For a newer supervisor or manager, the understanding of how a collective agreement operates and how human rights work in the workplace were seen to be very helpful,” says Gary. “For more experienced supervisors and managers, the focus on performance management, along with the more advanced discipline handling skills is high value. Overall, however, demystifying the union presence and union relationship was welcomed by all participants.”

Valerie Bartlett, Resources and Communications Officer in the Department of Medicine at Queen’s, felt like she learned a lot from the MUE program. “It has shown me the shift from a confrontational relationship to a true partnership.”

Shannon Hill, Learning and Development Specialist with Queen’s HR, also noted the valuable opportunity to meet colleagues from other departments. “It is great for networking, and also provides us with colleagues we can call when we need some help, and to share best practices.”

Gary is pleased to help the University create a smooth transition to high-quality union relations. He offers some advice for labour relations professionals who are new to managing in a unionized workplace.

  1. Read the Collective agreement – First and foremost, read, understand, and don’t be afraid of the Collective Agreement. It is framework that helps to define and support the working relationship of both parties. When seen as a way to ensure both the fair protection of employee rights along with helping deliver a productive and effective working relationship, a unionized environment can be a strong enabler of success. If management sees the union as a resource to help build a strong workplace, and if the union sees management as a critical leadership role helping build a successful organization, both parties will thrive.
  2. Train your leaders – Take the time and effort to train front-line leadership on both sides, management and union. Enable and support the success of the front-line leadership, and the organization will thrive.

In 2012, the IRC delivered five, custom MUE programs for Queen’s University, with approximately 150 participants in total. With more programs scheduled for 2013, the IRC is pleased to offer this exceptional learning experience to many more Queen’s supervisors and managers.

The Peer Circle: Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

 Holistic Surgery for the Infected Workplace

Jean passed the talking piece to Kimberly. You could see her shoulders straighten, a deep intake of breath, a glance around the circle of her assembled colleagues. She was steeling herself to say what was difficult but necessary. Kimberly explained that, for her, the constant putting down of customers and negativity around workplace conditions was unacceptable and made it difficult to enjoy and take pride in her work. She asked that the team demonstrate professionalism toward clients and respect the fact that everyone ought to be able to come to work and expect a reasonably supportive environment.

Kimberly spoke to the middle of the Circle; a message not “pointed at” anyone but offered as her honest experience and request. As the talking piece moved around the room people, contributed their thoughts. Jim said that, while he appreciated Kimberly’s point of view, he felt that there were legitimate concerns about how the workplace was being managed and about the tools that were being provided to do the work. It was important to him that he be able to criticize some of the choices being made without being labeled a malcontent.

The Challenge

Protracted group conflict within a workplace is among the more daunting challenges that HR and conflict management professionals face. A peer or corporate circle is a creative response to conflicts that are driven largely by historic relationship and values differences. In this instance, the work group had a long history of conflict that was multiply determined. A number of conventional approaches had been employed with limited success.

Our firm was brought in to consult around an “out of the box” approach. We recommended a peer circle be convened based on the following observations:

  • Management identified a significant minority of disaffected people that was exerting a negative influence on others.
  • The issues were not limited to discrete relationships but represented cleavages among staff.
  • There was thought to be a restless “silent majority” whose interests were not being served by the status quo,

Assessment and Preparation

Two facilitators (Heather Swartz and I) interviewed each of the 25 staff, supervisors, and manager over the course of two days. From these interviews, we mapped out alliances and conflict contribution systems. Using this data and our impressions of participants’ communication skills and preparedness to take a stake in the outcome, we designed two Peer Circles that were to run for six hours on two consecutive days. We used the day between the interviews and the Circle sessions to determine the seating plans for each of the circles and design the room where the meetings were to be held.

The considerations that went into the seating plan were to:

  • provide support persons near key players (antagonists or protagonists) to encourage them to bring forward their concerns;
  • provide space between allies and enemies such that moderating points of view could be brought to bear, allowing the people most likely to be triggered within the circle to gain insight and perspective; and
  • create an overlap of those persons whose orientation appeared to be unconditionally constructive in both circles to provide a degree of continuity and thematic integrity (values that we felt needed to be nurtured in order to improve things) to the process.

The union — one of the larger ones within the transportation industry — shared management’s concerns about this workplace and was committed to working with them toward an improved environment. The facilitators briefed the Regional Representative about the process and invited him to participate. Because the process was a novel one for this organization, head office sent a senior human resources consultant to the session to participate.

The Circle was designed with facilitators occupying the 12 and 6 o’clock positions and the union representative and HR manager occupying the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. This meant that the conversation could not get too far off track before either the facilitators or HR or union representative had an opportunity to reframe or reorient conversation.

The facilitator located at 12 o’clock was the Host and assumed primary responsibility for the substantive agenda in the form of provocative questions. The Host could modify the questions, skip questions, or introduce new questions as he saw fit based upon where the conversation has been going and the group’s progress in dealing with the issues identified through the interview process.

The 6 o’clock facilitator, called the Guardian, had primary responsibility for the unfolding of the process and managing any impasses or key learnings that were achieved. Guardian used a bell, which she would sound if she wanted something to “sink in” or if things became very emotional, and she wanted to give people an opportunity to reflect before responding. Anyone within the circle could ask for the bell to be sounded; one of the ground rules was that when the bell sounded, there would be 20 seconds of silence observed.

The Process

The Host introduced the Circle process and suggested some ground-rules, adding any that the group wishes. He then opened the circle with an invocation (in this instance, a recorded piece of music). The first question was voiced and the talking piece was passed to one of those sitting next to the Host. Each person was asked to address the question. One was allowed to “pass” on occasion but everyone was encouraged to share their thoughts with the group at least every second time the piece came around. While someone held the talking piece, no one else spoke. This ensured that group members would all have a voice and that issues would be explored rather than debated within the circle.

Early on, the questions and the discussion generated was more at the surface level. As the group became more comfortable with itself, people began to share at a deeper level, and the questions encouraged this. From time to time, people within the circle chose to acknowledge the wisdom or courage that someone demonstrated by what they said. Some asked questions of the group to move the action forward or bring it back to an area that was not explored sufficiently.

The facilitators occasionally took the opportunity to offer the group a story from their experience or a piece of learning that they picked up along the way. Others did the same. The Host or the Guardian took the opportunity to sum up or reframe a comment to either achieving closure on a topic or moving forward the action. Refreshment breaks were provided every 90 minutes or so.

At a certain point, the group demonstrated that it arrived at a degree of consensus. At this point, one of the facilitators framed a decision ask the group if it was ready to move on. A straw poll was taken, and more discussion took place when necessary.

Generally, the process can run anywhere from a few hours to a day or more. In this instance, because it was a 24 / 7 operation, each session ran for about six hours, excluding lunch and breaks.


The process described above was the first in a series. It is a work in progress. A second Circle usually takes place 90 days or so after the first. The manager involved described the impact this way:

One of the biggest improvements is that the quieter staff members are speaking out now. Some employees have embraced the Circle Workshop experience and have followed through on their commitment. But some have not.

A follow-up session is critical…In my honest opinion, there are still a lot of issues between some staff that need to be resolved. In the first session, we only touched the first layer of the cake. I know the objective of the workshop is not to point figures or alienate someone, but people need to be honest if we want to move forward.

The union representative offered this:

I firmly believe the exercise has value and consider the services [of the facilitators] to be to the point and professional. I look forward to round 2 when a review of the impact of the first exercise is fully evaluated and measured.

What We Learned

The workplace is still having trouble. Factions remain. A number of those who were identified by management as disaffected decided to absent themselves from the process. There has been limited or no uptake among them.

It will take a determined effort by management and those who made commitments within the Circle to see the workplace renewed. We expect that, during the subsequent Circle(s), there will be more conversations that are difficult, with the need to confront differences in values and communication styles. The cooperative spirit evident during the circle may or may not take root.

There is now a very clear mandate provided to management by those in attendance that is supportive of more accountability for people’s communications and actions toward one another. The “silent majority” is speaking up more often for what they want and are being supportive of one another. Some of the worst behaviours have stopped or occur less frequently.

Some staff members are struggling with bullying behaviour and petty harassment that is difficult to “pin on” any one person. People are paying a price for the kind of change they want and it is not always pretty to watch. As with any change, there is a period when those who are invested in the status quo will fight to protect it. The Circle made this struggle overt and the conversation about it explicit.

To draw a comparison with a famous scientific experiment involving frogs and hot water, those “in the soup” are now aware of the temperature of the water and are making an effort to moderate the environment so that it can continue to sustain life and provide a degree of satisfaction for everyone. The story continues.

About the Author

Rick Russell, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Rick Russell has been working full time in the dispute resolution field for 23 years, first as the Ombudsman to McMaster University in Hamilton, then as a commercial mediator. In 1993, he co-founded Agree, a full service conflict management firm. Rick has a busy mediation and facilitation practice specializing in commercial, construction and workplace issues, as well as conflict management training, arbitration and partnering. He also works frequently in the area of workplace investigation and fact-finding, workplace assessment and restoration, conflict coaching and advanced conflict management training. Rick serves on the faculty of highly regarded programs at both University of Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College and Queen’s University’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC). Rick has held leadership positions at the Ontario Bar Association ADR Section, and at the ADR Institute of Ontario. Rick’s speaking, training and facilitation practice includes international engagements in the USA, Barbados and Ethiopia. A graduate of McMaster University (History) and the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law, Rick is an avid hiker, canoeist, nature photographer and writer. He lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife Margaret and their four sons.

Cultivating Effective Management-Union Relationships in the Unionized Workplace

In almost all organizations today, both public and private sector, managers are looking to deliver better results and greater productivity. And within these same organizations, the union is often seen as a barrier to management effectively achieving these goals. From the union’s point of view, management views the collective agreement as an impediment to achieving results, leading to frequent violations of the collective agreement. This dynamic leads to ongoing conflict between management and union, further draining the organization’s energy and resources, eroding the very productivity and results the company is seeking to achieve. Both management and the union need to revisit how the collective agreement is used, and could be used more effectively, within the organization.

To meet the challenges of the future, the onus lies on both management and the union to help create a working environment where every member of the organization contributes to the organization’s success. Based on the experience of a number of labour relations professionals, below are some of the most common mistakes and challenges that management and unions face regarding the collective agreement. These mistakes and challenges create the very issues that both are trying to avoid.

Common Management Mistakes

Lack of Training in the Collective Agreement: Lack of clarity and knowledge about the collective agreement among front-line managers and supervisors is a common problem in organizations. Recently, I was conducting a focus group with managers as part of the development of a training module on the organization’s collective agreement. I asked a group of 10 experienced managers (some of whom had been managers for 15 to 20 years) how many considered themselves to be very knowledgeable about their own collective agreement. Two raised their hands. Surprised, I asked how many had actually read the collective agreement within the last two years. The same two individuals raised their hands. Even more surprised, I asked those two why they, in particular, had read the collective agreement, and both told me they had recently been members of the union at this company, and had just been promoted to supervisors. In other words, eight of the ten managers were not at all knowledgeable about their own collective agreement (regardless of their length of service), and regularly made decisions without having a clear idea if they were complying with the labour agreement. Even worse, it was very likely that many of their staff did know whether their decisions complied.

The greatest building block for establishing credibility in the workplace for a manager or supervisor is clear knowledge and familiarity with the collective agreement. Without this knowledge, management lack credibility with their staff, impairing their ability to lead and drive change with their workforce.

Lack of Interpersonal Skills When Applying the Collective Agreement: Even when supervisors and managers do know and understand the basics of the collective agreement, they sometimes use it as a form of “power” to force their employees into compliance, rather than as a jointly agreed framework everyone must operate within. Once this workplace framework is clear and understood—both through the collective agreement and overall policies and procedures—it is still critical that managers and supervisors effectively engage their staff in a positive, productive relationship. Management-union relationships don’t run effectively through the use of power; they function productively when a climate of respect and engagement exists. And it’s up to management to take the lead in creating this climate.

Ineffective Communication with Staff: While there may be many meetings held, and a great deal of e-mail flying around the office, management has frequently still not communicated effectively with staff. The essence of good communication is answering the question, “Why?” Why is this initiative taking place? Why are we doing this? Why is this or that important? Much research shows that without everyone clearly knowing and understanding why decisions are made, or actions taken, little engagement, or commitment will arise. Effective communication requires management to have a communication strategy, one that prioritizes information, communicates it clearly, and repeatedly in a range of forums, from the company newsletter to labour management meetings, to shop floor meetings. When the “Why?” question is answered clearly and unambiguously, engagement and commitment are not far behind.

Common Union Challenges

Creating or Allowing a Reactive Environment: Many times, unions feel shut out by management, and react by simply resisting anything that isn’t crystal clear to them. Instead of resisting management decisions, unions should take the lead in asking: “Why?” That is, unions should hold management accountable to having clear, understandable reasons and rationale for decision-making. Further, unions must demonstrate a willingness to listen and take management’s goals for the organization seriously. By taking a proactive stand, rather than a reactive one, the union assumes a leadership role in helping to create a positive work environment for all staff.

Creating or Allowing an Adversarial Environment: In addition to resisting management decisions when feeling shut out, unions may become flat out adversarial on principle, refusing to support even positive changes the organization is implementing. These adversarial feelings often stem from a long history of conflict. Regardless of their root cause, a defensive stance makes it even easier for management to ignore, or marginalize the union, leading to even greater levels of resistance. This adversarial environment is characterized by the thought that, “If management wants it, it must be bad for us!” Once a strongly adversarial mindset takes hold, many opportunities to improve the workplace disappear. Once again, unions should hold management accountable by requiring both a clear understanding of management decisions, along with respect for the collective agreement. In turn, management will likely be encouraged to engage with, rather than marginalize the union.

Seeing Discipline as Purely “Punitive”: Discipline, when properly executed, is corrective in nature; discipline that is properly and fairly applied is necessary in workplaces. Unions that approach all discipline as unnecessary or unfair foster the wrong mindset. Unions have a clear duty to fairly represent their members, and must hold management accountable for fair and corrective use of discipline. This accountability doesn’t mean, however, that all discipline must be resisted and fought. By enforcing an approach that balances fair representation with a reasonable and corrective use of discipline, both parties will be promoting a culture of high performance and fair treatment in the workplace.


Both unions and management have a duty to create productive, respectful, and engaging workplaces. The collective agreement is one of the main tools that both parties must use effectively to create this organizational culture. Unfortunately, in many workplaces the collective agreement is seen by management as “the union’s document,” an attitude that prevents management from being able to manage effectively. And unions, in turn, may see the collective agreement as the primary way to resist most management changes and initiatives—an attitude that fosters conflict, rather than productivity.

Only by promoting knowledge and clarity of the collective agreement across the management team, as well as by supporting productivity and change initiatives that respect the collective agreement, can management teams and unions build strong organizations and better working relationships.


About the Author

Gary Furlong, Queen's IRC FacilitatorGary T. Furlong is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC Labour Relations programs.


Joint Training: Learning on Both Sides of the Fence

It is a sunny day in June 2008, and in the Calgary office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a gathering of senior managers of ENMAX Power Corporation and members of IBEW Local 254 is getting animated. The lively discussion centres on the hot-button topic of discipline: when should managers invoke it and how can it be made fair and transparent? The discussion falls along party lines, and neither the managers nor the union members hold back.

In the midst of it all, John Briegel, Kirstan Jewell, and Mark Taylor watch the proceedings with a mixture of satisfaction and relief. It was their unorthodox idea to put managers and shop stewards together as part of a three-day Joint Leadership and Excellence training program. For Briegel, Business Manager for IBEW Local 254, Jewell, formerly ENMAX’s Director of Employee Relations, and Taylor, ENMAX’s Manager of Civil Works, the no-holds-barred, yet respectful debate over worker discipline, showed that the participants were taking the training program seriously, and actually getting into the spirit of learning.

“I was surprised by how engaged the people were,” Jewell says, thinking back to that first session. “I thought we were delivering something of value, but I wasn’t sure how we would be perceived by participants or the organization. The folks were highly participatory. The feedback was that we needed more. It’s a big time commitment, so for the program to be supported is really positive.”

Since the June 2008 session, ENMAX Power has run two more three-day programs for some 15 IBEW leaders and shop stewards, ENMAX directors, and line managers. Beating some long odds, joint training looks to be growing roots in the Alberta electricity provider.

Joint union-management training is unusual in North America, and it’s not hard to figure out why. On the continuum of union-management relations—from confrontation through armed truce, working harmony, and cooperation—a great many relationships sit on the cantankerous side. And for the few joint training programs that sprout as promising shoots, many are soon cut down because union members perceive that their leadership is too cozy with management and not looking after worker interests.

On the other hand, the benefits of jointly training managers and shop stewards are tantalizing. The promise lies in increasing boundary-spanning knowledge, reducing the friction that can lead to high grievance costs or work stoppages, and finding shared ways of meeting change head on.

Based on its recent history, ENMAX Power was a prime candidate for joint union-management training. The organization is a subsidiary of ENMAX Corporation, which, in turn, is owned by the City of Calgary. Its first experience with collective bargaining with the IBEW in 2001 was “brutal,” says Briegel. “The changed world of the electric utility in Calgary had created a significant level of concern among the workers and what was now in many respects a new management group that had yet to develop a labour relations philosophy. There were 280 separate proposals for change at that negotiation. It became somewhat of a marathon.”

For the next agreement, though, there was a new management bargaining team in place, and the two sides agreed to participate in facilitated mutual gains bargaining. “It was from this negotiation that we created the Employee Relation’s Council,” Briegel says, “and the ability to work collaboratively solving problems as they arose, rather than saving them up for the next negotiation.”

When they wrapped-up the 2007 collective bargaining session, Briegel invited Jewell and Taylor to the IBEW union hall to watch a video conference featuring the union’s American president talking about a code of excellence. “It was quite astounding,” recalls Taylor, a former IBEW member for close to 20 years. “At one point, John looked over at me and said, Your mouth is open. And I said, I can’t believe I am hearing a president of a union speaking about members having to be more productive and to quit spending so much time in the coffee shop.”

At the same time, it was clear to both management and the union that supervisors and shop stewards needed training, both to avoid sliding back to the days of confrontation and to keep up with changes brought on by a competitive marketplace. “We realized that we needed to change the culture in the group,” Taylor says. “Utilities are a different animal. The old utility worker, once you’re in, you keep you nose clean and retire with a good pension. When Alberta deregulated utilities, we needed to get competitive. We realized that if we didn’t start training our union leaders at the leader level, we weren’t going to get there.”

Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor put their heads together to imagine what the curriculum would look like. Rising to the top was the need to educate stewards and supervisors on how decisions are made and to see issues from a bigger perspective. Their hope was that if stewards and supervisors understood each other’s roles, festering issues could be resolved. They figured the best way to educate staff and open communication channels was to put all trainees in a room and treat them all the same way: on one day of training they’d be shop stewards, the other day front-line supervisors.

In developing the curriculum, Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor made use of resources from Queen’s University IRC, a management development unit specializing in labour relations, human resources, and organization development. Both Jewell and Taylor received Queen’s IRC Certificates for completing three labour relations programs. From their Queen’s experience, they received inspiration and gleaned practical ideas on how to stage an in-house collective bargaining simulation and make adult learning interesting. (The IRC also provides customized training for those organizations, upon request.) “Queen’s has been phenomenal in sending us learning resources to use,” Taylor says. “Labour Relations Foundations was, without a doubt, the best program I’ve taken in my life. It was the course that got me thinking about doing a better job on union training.”

The first day of the Joint Leadership and Excellence training program features a review of the ENMAX and IBEW Local 254 relationship, the structure of the corporation and the union, a piece on leadership and culture change, and a collective bargaining simulation. The second day focuses on employee accountability, the supervisor’s role, progressive discipline, the IBEW’s Code of Excellence, and “safety leadership.” The final day explores how grievances are handled.

To test their curriculum design, the trio piloted the program with colleagues whom they knew would offer constructive feedback. They got that and more: the pilot project served to drum up interest for the first program, particularly among union members.

The IBEW Local 254, in fact, was ready and primed for joint training. “This was not a difficult sell to the members as the majority of them depend on a relatively small group of stewards to look after their interests,” Briegel says. “The stewards, on the other hand, were constantly asking for training. We also have a history of working together on Joint Apprenticeship Committees, Bid Committees, health and safety issues, and operational practices.”

Selling joint training to senior management was more challenging. Jewell and Taylor had to battle the perception of joint training as a “flavour of the week” and try to counter the argument that, “we’ve done things this way for years, why change now?” But luck was on their side: On the second day of the pilot program, which was held at the ENMAX head office, three members of the Board of Directors were in the building. They asked to sit in on the change management session and were impressed by what they experienced. So much so that they went to the Board meeting and sang its praises. Jewell and Taylor also had a believer in the executive suite. Rick Ehlers, Executive Vice President of Transmission and Distribution Services, has a labour relations background and years ago led the way in encouraging more cooperation with the IBEW.

With three sessions under their belts, Briegel, Jewell, and Taylor plan to fine-tune the curriculum and consider expanding it into another unionized part of the business. They are also looking to improve upon the learning manual and to create a facilitator’s manual.

They have plenty of work ahead of them, but now the trio has something substantial to build upon. They also have tangible proof: the latest round of collective bargaining took only 12 days. “My expectation going in was to provide the skills and tools to the Shop Stewards Group to allow them to be more effective in that role” Breigel says. “This has, for the most part, been met and an evident bonus has been their increased level of co-operation between stewards and managers.”

But they are under no illusion that joint training provides innoculation against conflict and misunderstanding. To be sure, there have been challenges dealing with terminations and new industry policies on drug testing. Without ongoing commitment by the IBEW and ENMAX, they say, the gains can easily be lost. “We’re not all the way there yet but we’re turning into family,” says Taylor. “The union is walking side by side with us.”

What We’ve Learned

Here is what John Briegel, Kirstan Jewell, and Mark Taylor have learned about launching a joint training program.

Find ways to build trust

You don’t have to have perfect labour relations, but you do require mutual respect. Briegel: “Sometimes it can be as simple as ‘We are predictable to each other and we know that our job is to look after each of our respective interests and in doing so we will be truthful to each other.’ If you can believe that to be true, you can build a working relationship that uses its energy to challenge the right things.”

Respect boundaries

Joint training is an extreme “relationship management” challenge. Each side has to be aware and respectful of boundaries, particularly the other side’s boundaries. That means giving your union or management partner room to manage their own stakeholders.

Stay true to the process of authentic collaboration

Don’t pay lip service—put yourselves in the shoes of the participants and consider their needs. Good ideas need to win out, regardless of who came up with them. Don’t keep score.

Be open and honest

Jewell: “We’re honest about what we do. On day one we talk about the continuum of labour relations and where we are on the spectrum. We peg ourselves mid-way and say we probably don’t want to be harmonious. We have a strong union and strong management and through creativity and open and honest dialogue we can come up with better solutions. So we have to be realistic around where you are.”

Bring energy to the room

Adult learners do best in a safe and engaging environment. Simulated negotiations offer excellent insights that stick.

Build the business case

What’s the cost of the status quo versus moving to a mutual gains perspective? Taylor: “You can spend money on lawyers or spend money on training your people in open communications. In Alberta, a typical three-day arbitration case costs at least $50,000. Someone is getting rich so why isn’t it your workforce?” At ENMAX, the operational practices committee last year, working with the union, found more than $1 million in efficiencies.

Getting Along With the Union

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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