Training Employees is Key to Effective Union-Management Relationships

Queen's University in Kingston, ON
Labour Relations

For 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.

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