Unions letting members decide for themselves

Sending tentative agreements to ratification without a recommendation more common

In early July, municipal workers in Ontario’s Peel Region were asked to vote on management’s final offer without endorsement from the union’s negotiating team.

It’s a situation unions are facing more frequently, according to Angelo Pesce, principal consultant with Pesce & Associates, a human resource consulting firm in Toronto.

“The primary reason is the tough economic times,” Pesce says, adding that this means unions could be faced with extending the collective agreement for another term or making concessions in negotiations.

The 900 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 966 who belong to three separate bargaining units were split on the offer.

The first two groups representing Ontario Works, Children’s Services, Housing Services, Integrated Business Divisions and TransHelp voted in favour of the offer.

The third group, Public Works, rejected it.

“This is not an easy sell. Strikes may not be feasible because governments, especially federally, have not hesitated in return to work legislation either threatened or real,” Pesce says. “Letting people decide on their own is an understandable approach.”

That’s what happened in late 2010 when CUPE Local 4816 refused to endorse an agreement with the Health Science Professionals Bargaining Association and Health Employers’ Association of British Columbia.

The union said the deal was reached at “too high a cost for CUPE members” because, under the province’s net zero bargaining mandate, the union was forced to make too many trade-offs that benefited some members while hurting others.

Often, it’s the result of an “asymmetric information problem,” a term used by Maurice Mazerolle, a labour relations and human resources expert at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Management and the union both believe they have the pulse of the workers and union leaders agree to put the offer to members to prove their point, he says.

“Where I’m a union leader and convinced the membership won’t support the deal and think management won’t believe it, we’ll take it back and show you it’s not something we can support,” according to Mazerolle, who says he, too, has noticed more of this happening lately.

This is what unfolded in Windsor, Ont., during the last strike by city workers in 2009. That deal was rejected but a subsequent 48-hour marathon bargaining session did produce an agreement that ended the 15-week strike.

While refusing to endorse a collective agreement can help union negotiators test the waters, Mazerolle says it can also be used by unions to convince members that management’s final offer is final — an increasing challenge for negotiators.

“If you’ve been under contract for three or four years and your last contract was one thing and now it’s different, it’s difficult to accept,” he says. “If I’m living in a bubble and emerge into this new harsh economic world, it will take a lot to convince me there’s not more.”

This could be what plays out in the upcoming labour negotiations in the auto sector, where Canadian workers are among the highest paid in the industry and unprepared to take less, Mazerolle says.

In the long term, it’s best for the parties to reach a deal they can both endorse, he says. Mazerolle cautions his students to be wary of emotional responses that can lead to negotiators walking away from the table with a deal they can’t endorse.

“If you reach a deal, (union leaders) have to become the advocate for your deal,” he says. “You have to look at how they’ll present your offer. How will they maximize the gains and minimize the losses?”

There can be other lasting impacts as well, especially when it comes to the relationship with the employer, Pesce says.

“Generally, the employer wants to know that the people they are dealing with have the authority to commit to an agreement,” he says. “The non-recommended vote introduces an element of doubt that negatively impacts on the relationship.”

However, Pesce anticipates seeing more situations like this in future because of a “wide open interest” by some politicians to diminish the power of unions.

“This is an error because while there is a lot that unions can do to become more reasonable, especially in tough times,” he says, “the fact is ordinary workers have always been better off when they are a collective.

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