Canada’s labour relations at crossroads: Survey

But collaboration growing between labour, management
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2011

Nearly two-thirds (64.9 per cent) of organizations think labour relations in Canada are at a critical crossroads, according to the latest Pulse Survey.

“The trend is going in the opposite direction for unionization,” said Kashif Raza, HR business partner at 140-employee Voysus Group in Toronto. “Unionization is decreasing and the trend is more and more workforces, as they come in, there is less unionization. In the next 10 years, it’s going to be extremely low.”

More than one-half (52.1 per cent) of respondents do not think unionized workers have the upper hand in bargaining rights while 27.3 per cent think they do and 20.7 per cent are unsure, found the survey of 339 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

Recent labour relations issues have garnered extensive media attention, such as back-to-work legislation at Air Canada and Canada Post, which may have affected perceptions about unions.

“The only power they have is to strike and if that’s taken away from them, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to negotiation power,” said Raza.

And more than one-half (52.4 per cent) of respondents think economic conditions have pitted unionized workers against management, while 26 per cent are unsure and 21.6 per cent said that is not the case, found the survey.

When Leisureworld Caregiving Centre in Mississauga, Ont., had to lay off several workers in 2010 and 2011 due to the economy, management worked closely with the union to ensure they would not be pitted against each other, said Michael Bastian, environmental service manager.

“In these situations, we do whatever we can to get staff to buy into it — we do a lot of education, a lot of meetings with the union and it’s something that’s a big change,” he said. “It’s just a matter of giving staff more empowerment to let us know what would make them happy and how they can be effective.”

Management worked with the union to create action plans to help staff through the transition, said Bastian. And since everything went so well, there was a marked decrease in grievances at the 260-employee company.

“The grievances are not coming in like they were at the beginning — they are at a minimum right now and lost-time injuries are at a minimum. In our industry sometimes, for some reason, when there are labour relations problems we have more workplace injuries. Labour relations has significantly improved,” he said.

Since 2008, the number of grievances has remained unchanged at 44.4 per cent of firms, while it has increased at 42.2 per cent and decreased at 13.3 per cent, found the survey.

Nearly two-thirds (62.4 per cent) of respondents think there is a growing trend for management and labour to work together on solutions. Many organizations are starting to view unions as more of a business partner as opposed to an adversary, said Joanne Muriella, HR and labour relations manager at 1,100-employee Fearmans Pork in Burlington, Ont.

“If I, as the HR manager, go up to someone and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ I can guarantee the answer I would get would be a lot different than what the local (union) guy would get,” she said. “Employees may feel more comfortable sharing ideas or opinions with their union rep and the union will share that with the company in confidence.”

More than three-quarters of respondents (77 per cent) said the economy has had a negative impact on their ability to pay for terms and conditions of employment, found the PulseSurvey.

At Leisureworld, there have been many budget cuts due to the economy so annual salary increases have been minimal and the company has reduced its offerings around incentives, said Bastian.

“We have some high-paid individuals that work in our company, everything from registered nurses to registered dieticians, we have physicians on staff… and sometimes it’s hard to renew those contracts,” he said. “You almost want to go with an independent contractor who may be able to provide the same service for less money.”

Since 2008, labour relations has had a small financial impact on 57.3 per cent of organizations and a large impact on 19.3 per cent of organizations, found the survey.

When companies are thriving, grievance and arbitration costs do not make that much of a dent to the bottom line but when companies are struggling, any excessive costs are viewed poorly, said Muriella.

“Unfortunately, the union is the first thing you gun for — labour costs, union arbitration — and you think if you didn’t have the union you wouldn’t have those costs but you’d probably be in a different kind of court,” she said. “It’s just easy to point the finger in that direction.”

But greater employee awareness is another reason labour relations costs have increased, said Bastian.

“Staff are more aware of their rights and sometimes individuals can abuse those rights, and I find there’s a little more human rights tribunal complaints asking for settlements and all that,” he said. “There’s a lot more awareness out there right now, especially with new acts, employment standards and health and safety.”

Labour relations have had a small or medium psychological impact on 67.6 per cent of organizations, found the Pulse Survey. Nearly one-quarter (23.1 per cent) reported no impact while only 9.3 per cent reported a huge impact.

Prior to November 2010, the Fearmans facility was owned by Maple Leaf and 300 employees were laid off as part of that changeover, said Muriella. To minimize the psychological impact, the union helped almost all the laid-off employees find new positions.

“The union had a board of employment and, as each person found a new placement, they took the person’s picture down and when their recall rights expired after a year, there was very few left and most were people who moved or they couldn’t reach anymore,” said Muriella. “It was a really excellent thing and it showed the union supported them through that process.”

Over the next five years, 39.1 per cent of respondents expect there will be no change in their organization’s relationship with unions, while 36.4 per cent think conditions will get worse and 24.4 per cent think they will improve, found the survey.

“I think our relationship is pretty strong right now,” said Muriella. “When we come up to negotiations it might be a little bumpier but I don’t think it will chip away at the relationship, it just becomes posturing — it’s the same guy you gave a pat on the shoulder yesterday but now you have your game face on and as soon as it’s signed it’s right back to the pat on the shoulder.”

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