Labour relations headed for trouble, report says

By Asha Tomlinson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/05/2003

The health of labour-management relations is at great risk in the years to come, according to an annual report by the Canadian Labour and Business Centre. The survey, released on Labour Day, found management and labour leaders alike feel their relationships are shoddy.

“This is not the occasion to be celebrating the state of labour-management relations,” said Shirley Seward, CEO of the CLBC. “What we have found is that there is a disturbing trend where most business and labour leaders are forecasting trouble.”

The report,

Viewpoints 2002

, polled 1,100 labour leaders and managers across Canada in both the public and private sector. The biggest rift is in the public sector, where 62 per cent of labour leaders and 28 per cent of managers said the state of relations is poor. In the private sector, 48 per cent of labour leaders and 27 per cent of managers said the same.

Given the difficult economic times, Seward didn’t expect things to be rosy, although she was surprised by the magnitude of the problem, noting many more managers are projecting rough times ahead.

“Since we began tracking labour management perceptions in 1996, we have always found managers tend to be more optimistic than labour leaders in terms of relations. That’s still true but what has changed is that management is much more pessimistic than they’ve been (in the past), so that gap is narrowing,” said Seward.

Management’s pessimism has jumped dramatically. In the 2000 report, 28 per cent of public-sector managers believed relations would worsen in two years, compared to the 42 per cent of respondents who say that today.

“This is particularly marked in health care, education and government. Of course, these are precisely the sectors facing major HR challenges now and in the future due to the older age of workers, the emerging skill shortages and the importance of recruiting and retaining workers,” Seward said.

There are stresses on both sides. Managers are trying to compete in a global market, and recruit and retain workers. At the same time from the labour perspective, there is the stress from full workloads and not having the voice they would like to in the decision-making process, Seward said.

The divide cuts even deeper when it comes to hours on the job. Respondents were asked about their perceptions of work hours and whether it was a serious problem facing the labour market. About 74 per cent of private-sector labour and 77 per cent in the public sector see it as a big concern.

However, managers don’t agree. Only 29 per cent of public-sector managers and 19 per cent of private-sector managers see it as a major issue.

The statistics differ not only by sector, but by region. In Quebec, it seems the relationship is quite amicable. Around 82 per cent of managers and 73 per cent of labour leaders said their relations were acceptable or better. There is much more optimism in Quebec, said Seward.

“I think that is in part related to a long history of labour and management working together effectively to influence public policy and look for solutions to problems. It is part of the Quebec culture.”

By contrast, in British Columbia relations are taking a nosedive. The province had the highest percentage of managers and labour leaders who weren’t happy with relations. The deterioration is most prevalent in the public sector, 76 per cent of labour leaders and 47 per cent of managers felt things had worsened since 2000.

Doug Alley, vice-president of HR at the B.C. Business Council, said the chill in labour relations is in large part due to changes in the political environment.

“There are people who are saying it’s worse because, maybe, it doesn’t fit their particular agenda,” he said. The Liberal government is going through a restructuring of the pubic sector and some people are against it, Alley said.

In the last 10 years, many of the public-sector unions have been able to negotiate favourable contracts, said John Winter, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce. Those contracts are now far beyond what the government and corporations would like to pay and they have to be restated.

“It’s causing disruption and anxiety in the labour community and there is this element of mistrust. Once that is permanently embedded in relationships, it’s really hard to move forward,” Winter said.

The government made a number of public-sector changes in the last year. These include ripping up signed legal contracts with health-care employees and cutting the minimum wage to $6 an hour for beginning workers, to list a few.

“We’ve always had good employers and bad employers and while the economic times force some good employers to do what they don’t want to, all too often they decide the problem is (the workers),” said Jim Sinclair, B.C. Federation of Labour president.

There is no sure-fire formula to get both parties on the same page, but Seward suggests a few pointers.

“It involves things like better communication, more joint discussion and committees, good leadership and vision, and a willingness to really work together,” she said. “There is a problem here that must be addressed by all parties including the government, and I would hope by taking action on some of the underlying problems...we may be able to avoid some of the turbulence being forecasted.”

Canadians’ working conditions are deteriorating too, stated an annual report released by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), also on Labour Day.

More Canadians have become fearful of losing their jobs compared to 2001 and gender and racial wage gaps are still substantial. The unemployment rate and the length of unemployment spells have both increased. In addition, Canadian workers are less confident that they will find another job with equivalent status if let go from their current job (this confidence rate declined from 60 per cent in 2001 to 56 per cent this year.)

The pro-market policies of the past two decades are not producing results for working people, the report stated.

“Public policy has been influenced by the philosophy of corporate leaders that putting all our chips into being competitive is good, it’s the business recipe for success...it has not translated into a better standard of living though,” said Pierre Laliberte, CLC senior economist.

Most Canadians are also working longer hours (more than 50 hours a week) and said their incomes fall short of meeting basic needs.

“Our message is if (employers) focus on the right things, provide decent working conditions, that too is a plan for economic success down the line,” said Pierre Laliberte, CLC senior economist.

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