Striking right balance in labour relations (Analysis)

Employers should provide more financial details, unions should be more realistic
By Michelle Miner
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/05/2011

We have come a long way since the inception of “industrial relations” in Canada. Employees feel they are better protected by laws and union rights and employers are better educated in managing labour relations.

Since the 1990s, unions have successfully negotiated many new terms and conditions of employment. They have also been successful in diminishing some managerial rights and increasing union rights. Across Canada, the labour relations field has become increasingly legislated, leaving fewer issues to be negotiated between employers and unions.

As we battle the declining economy, we are facing strikes and lockouts because many organizations can no longer afford the pay rates that were rightfully negotiated between unions and employers. Through the Expenditure Restraint Act (ERA), the federal government actually rolled back negotiated wages and then set the bar for the maximum base salary increases through a “central bargaining table.”

This aggressive move has been broadly discussed by unions and employers because it has diminished the ability to negotiate but, on the other hand, it may have been key to surviving the current recession.

Yes, the financial crisis has caused anxiety, fatigue and depression which have led to major increases in the use of employee benefit plans. We continue to do more with fewer resources, both financial and human. Many industries have laid off staff but employees — through their unions — continue to ask for more in contract negotiations. Tensions are present and anxiety levels are high in workplaces. Has the pendulum swung too far? Is it now trying to swing back because we can no longer afford those negotiated pay rates and benefits?

There is an even split amongst respondents to the recent Pulse Survey conducted by Canadian HR Reporter and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) — one-half said they think unionized workers have the upper hand in bargaining during this time of economic uncertainty and the other side disagreed.

However, 52 per cent agreed the economic conditions have pitted unionized workers against management more strongly than ever. This adds to the growing issue of good mental health in the workplace. We know stress affects productivity and we need more workplace resiliency strategies.

The good news is 62.4 per cent of respondents agreed there is a growing trend for labour and management to work together in the face of unstable economic conditions. Canadian industries are faced with a dilemma similar to the current European conflict between stability and democracy — how do we sustain the current costs, and continue the dialogue about increased future expectations? Pulse Survey respondents agreed labour relations are at a critical crossroads.

To move forward, a true collaboration has to develop in labour-management relationships. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has not begun. Contract negotiations have, in some cases, been damaging and even explosive, resulting in strikes and lockouts. Certain striking workers have been deemed essential services and legislated back to work. Instead of more dialogue and continued negotiations, we are seeing more arbitration decisions as opposed to negotiated settlements.

These third-party decisions help to remove the immediate impasse. But an imposed decision can be difficult to live with, for both sides, and does not resolve the discord and damage between the two parties. It is a temporary fix to a critical problem. Some say unions are pricing themselves out of the market while others argue it’s the cost of doing business.

For the Canadian economy to survive these difficult times, this approach has to change. Both unions and employers must negotiate in the best interest of the organization. They must move towards integrative bargaining to achieve greater organizational effectiveness. Employers need to share more financial details and unions must be more receptive and realistic. Both must accord a high importance to the long-term prosperity of the organization and the health and well-being of employees instead of individual pluralistic goals. If this is not achieved, we will see businesses moving out of the Canadian market to lesser regulated countries.

The Canadian labour movement has evolved tremendously. The pendulum continues to swing in both directions but it must find the right balance to meet the changing needs of our industrial society.

Michelle Miner is director of human resources at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. She has more than 25 years’ experience in labour relations, teaching, consulting and practising. She can be reached at

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