The State of Our Unions – and Critical Issues in Labour-Management Relations

An Interview with Dr. Pradeep Kumar, Director of the Masters of Industrial Relations program, Queen’s University School of Policy Studies
Labour Relations

Dr. Pradeep Kumar of Queen’s University School of Policy Studies is an expert in unionism, collective bargaining, and workplace change in North America. Dr. Kumar, Director of the Masters of Industrial Relations program, spoke with us recently about union-management relations, and what is likely to develop in 2005 and beyond.

How important are labour relations in Canada?

First, let me emphasize that union-management relations are particularly important in Canada since unlike the U.S., we are heavily unionized. Although Statistics Canada numbers suggest that only one-third of workers are unionized, if you look at the impact of unions on the workforce, it is closer to 50 percent because there are a number of non-union companies that pay their employees on par with unionized organizations. Japanese transplants such as Toyota and Honda are examples where compensation packages follow the pattern of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

If you look at the rate of unionization by workplace size, 50 percent of workplaces with more than 200 employees have a union. These represent some of the leading industries essential to the Canadian economy: auto, steel, pulp and paper, telecommunications, the auto sector. These key industries are all very heavily unionized – financial services is the one exception.

In the Canadian case another important thing is that while union density has been declining in most countries, here it has been stable at 30 to 35 percent. Union membership has been going up steadily but marginally. Unions here have even made significant inroads in service industries, though it is still rare to see organized labour at Wal-Mart or McDonalds.

However, most international observers believe that if Wal-Mart unionizes in any country, it will be Canada. There have been many applications to organize, and one was successful in Quebec. The place is unionized and is negotiating its first agreement. If the union is successful in reaching the first agreement, Quebec will have the first unionized Wal-Mart in North America. The only existing Wal-Mart with aunion is in Germany.

How healthy are unions and union-management relations in Canada?

Union-management relations have been very tense over the past 10 to15 years. It’s partly due to globalization and its impact on companies. Competitive issues have become very crucial, affecting labour-management relations through corporate downsizing, for example.

In addition to economic changes, there has been significant change in the labour force. Work-family issues have become more and more important with the accelerated workforce participation of married women. Work-family issues are important for everyone, but for the 70 percent of married women in the workforce, it is a matter of survival. This has brought many issues to the bargaining table. I’m not just talking about flexible work practices, but also about anti-harassment policies, especially in male-dominated professions, and in hospitals, where harassment of nurses has gone up tremendously. Violence in workplaces overall has increased significantly. The presence of women creates a totally different type of workplace, and with that, new labour-management issues have emerged.

Work-family conflict is made more acute by the lean orientation of the workplace, with most organizations in the public and private sectors cutting costs and trying to produce more with as few resources as possible. The reason why the work-family issue has become such a topic of discussion is that it is hitting the professionals and managerial workers. It has been a problem for clerical, administrative, and blue collar workers for years, but now even the managers are complaining.

Apart from issues relating to economic change and changes in the labour force, labour relations in the public sector have been going from bad to worse each year. This is partly due to the ideological orientation that comes from globalization that the private sector can always do things better than the public sector, as reflected in policies of the former Conservative government in Ontario, and now in B.C.. This has increased contracting out, deregulation, and privatization, leading to downsizing.

The other thing is that the public sector is the one area where employers have bargaining power not only as employers but as the government. So if the union does not agree to what they want at the bargaining table, they can pass legislation or designate a large number of employees as essential. The public sector is very centralized, with large bargaining units with a very high degree of diversity in which people are doing all kinds of different jobs. Interests are very different. This is difficult for both unions and employers, and creates problems for negotiators.

What are today’s most crucial labour-management issues?

I’d say the biggest immediate labour-management issue for the public and private sector is pensions, and this will be true into 2005. We have seen many private sector cases like Stelco and Air Canada where pensions have been the main issue: not just the pension entitlement of the employee, but the ability of the employer to pay the retiree’s pension. Often retirees outnumber current employees in older private sector companies. Therefore the pension liabilities are far greater in relation to employees who have already retired. Companies have significant unfunded pension liabilities in the millions of dollars – in some cases, billions. This, obviously, is a huge issue.

Another force causing change is the aging of the workforce. One-third of the workforce in the public and private sectors will be retiring in five to 10 years. A lot of employers see it as an opportunity to lower their costs on a permanent basis. We are already seeing a two-tier system: one pay level for current employees, another, lower one, for new hires. This is becoming common in the auto sector and with airlines, and we’ll be seeing more of that.

What developments would you most like to see in 2005 and beyond in labour-management relations?

I would like to see public policy changes to provide more rights of consultation and information to workers and their unions. I think one of the main causes of tense relationships and the reason unions get a bad name is mistrust between workers and management – which is really rooted in lack of information and consultation. I’m not saying give veto power to the union, but if you could somehow mandate consultation, I as an academic would be happy and so would many others, because this would put labour relations on a more stable footing.

One area where the right of information and consultation would help most is in workloads. We have to find a way to stabilize workloads so that there are no health and safety risks. We are spending millions of dollars in public health costs relating to increasing workloads.

We really have to find a way. Many organizations are aware of the issues and the consequences of not dealing with it. General Motors, for example, is spending a lot more on health and safety and ergonomics. Last time they gave $36 million to the union to undertake training, and an additional $15 million or so specifically for health and safety training. Management must realize that if companies want more productivity, with fewer people, there is bound to be higher workloads and greater health and safety costs. Without supportive policies, productivity gains will not be sustainable.

How are emerging labour-management issues affecting the training being provided to students in the Queen’s Masters of Industrial Relations (MIR) program?

The MIR curriculum has to be dynamic to meet the changing needs of students and employers. We added a new course a few years ago in public sector bargaining, and are adding another one this spring in public sector HR management. We also want to introduce a course on work and health. The content of our core courses evolves to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need.

As far as competencies go, in every reference I’ve given for a student for the past three years, the employer’s first question has been, ‘How good are their communication skills?’ They mean not just verbal but also interpersonal, and ‘Can this student work in teams? ‘That’s why we have such an emphasis on group work. Research skills have also become increasingly important, partly because things are changing so fast that what you learn today may not be relevant tomorrow. You have to be able to keep up with developments, with best as well as worst practices. Employers expect that. They don’t want to have to do a lot of orientation or training, and expect grads to be able to undertake it prior to joining the workforce.

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