A recipe for labour peace

Combine a highly trusted senior HR person, a willingness to work with unions and an absence of jargon

Whenever industrial relations make the news in Canada, chances are it’s a bad news story. With more than 30 years’ experience as an industrial relations professor and 20 years’ as an arbitrator, Allen Ponak knows there’s more to it out there. So, along with film maker Bert Painter, he set out to find the untold stories. The result is the documentary Beyond Collision: High Integrity Labour Relations, which features stories of union-management collaboration at four workplaces: NorskeCanada (now Catalyst Paper), Calgary Laboratory Services, Canadian Pacific Railway and the Department of National Defence. In 2006, the documentary won a Silver Screen award at the International Film and Video Festival in Los Angeles.

Uyen Vu, Canadian HR Reporter’s news editor, caught up with Ponak, now a full-time arbitrator and professor emeritus of industrial relations at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, to discuss lessons he learned while making the film. For one of the case studies profiled in the documentary, see article #5022.

CHRR Why did you set out to do this documentary?

Ponak: Partly because we were approached by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (a program run by Human Resources and Social Development Canada), who knew of my work in general. They felt there was a real absence of any kind of film that was Canadian, and that highlighted positive stories about labour relations in Canada. There was the feeling that what gets the publicity in the country is the bad news story: the walkout by the NHL players, a difficult strike in a manufacturing plant where there’s confrontation at the picket line, a strike by the Toronto transit workers that even if it lasts only a few hours garnishes publicity. And yet, anybody in the field will know that there are a lot of awfully good success stories out there, where unions and employers have worked really hard to establish very good relationships that are good for the company, good for the employees and good for the union in that they serve their membership well.

CHRR How did you find the case studies?

Ponak: I hired a PhD student and basically said, “Go look in newspapers, various newsletters, conferences, academic journals, books.” With an advisory committee, we winnowed down the list to about a dozen. We then rank-ordered them, looking for different industries, different gender mix, different ethnic mixes, different unions, different parts of the country. Then I picked up the phone and started calling. And we never got past number four. That was a really interesting finding. Don’t forget that we had to get co-operation from both the union and management. The people we contacted were delighted to participate. Over and over we heard things like, “Somebody notices us. We’ve been doing these things, doing them quietly. We haven’t solicited publicity and we’re really pleased that someone looked in from the outside, liked what they saw and wants to do a story about us.”

CHRR What’s your sense of how common these stories are?

Ponak: We found quite a few. I don’t know if I would call them common. We were looking over 10 years of media. We did come up with a good list, some of them stronger than others. But there is a lot more going on out there quietly, below the radar that you don’t really hear about. And in the end we had really compelling stories of successful labour relations from which lessons can be drawn and which model the way things can be done. And it’s good for everyone. It’s not that by being nice to the union, an organization somehow loses productivity or lets inefficiency run rampant or lets wages go out of control. These are organizations that act in their own self-interest, but they do it in a way that builds a strong relationship so that the interests of everybody — the unions, the employees, the shareholders — all are being well-served.

CHRR Let’s talk about the lessons that emerged in the four stories.

Ponak: You’re not going to have good relationships unless the company accepts the union as legitimate. If the CEO goes to bed at night fantasizing about having a union-free environment, it’s not going to work. The senior people at the organization have to be committed to working with a union, not try to get rid of their union, not try to go around the union, but accept that the union is legitimate and has a right to be there, which I think is appropriate if that’s what the workers want in a modern, democratic society.

The second we observed at each of these organizations is the senior HR or industrial relations person had a huge amount of authority and credibility with the CEO or board of directors. They were in a position to make things happen or change things as needed. For example, at the Calgary Laboratory Services: A very messy start up, a public-private partnership in a heavily unionized industry, multiple collective agreements — talk about a recipe for potential disaster. One of the things we noticed was that, after the CEO, the second person hired was a vice-president of HR. That sent an important signal that they were serious about promoting high-integrity industrial relations practices.

CHRR They were also very senior, experienced people.

Ponak: That was one of the other things we noticed was the people who brought about the changes tended to be very experienced people. And this is true of both sides, both the union and the company. It wasn’t newbies. I’m not trying to denigrate someone coming out with an MBA and fabulous ideas about changing labour relations. You’re going to get people who do that and can do that, but our experience with the most successful development of high quality labour relations was with people with a lot of experience and a lot of credibility.

CHRR Apart from the credibility and the seniority of the leaders, tell me about the role of the kind of the rapport that had to be in place all through the organization.

Ponak: That’s certainly one of the issues — how do you infuse that throughout the organization? We asked that and one of the things we heard, over and over again, is once they had committed to high-integrity labour relations in their hires and in their training, they wanted to be sure the people they brought in shared that commitment. So they were very careful in their hiring. In some cases, they had to let go of people they had hired. A few cases where a person in the HR department or in operations didn’t share the commitment — that person didn’t last. As the CEO of Norske said, “Sometimes it was easier to change people than to change people.” I love that line.

CHRR And in order to change people before you change them, there would need to be a lot of training and communication. How much resources and investment did it take for the culture to filter?

Ponak: A lot of these organizations are committed to ongoing training. There was some money devoted to training in the short-line railroad because they were going into a participative style of running the place. There was a commitment at the Department of National Defence to a mediation system. As part of that mediation system, they basically set aside a budget for conflict resolution generally, rather than have people when they have a conflict be in front of a mediator. They spent a lot of time offering programs on conflict management and coaching. That was an expensive program, a five-year program costing several million dollars a year.

CHRR Some of the people talked about a level of suspicion they get from their members — or from their managers if they’re the HR leader — that they’re in the other party’s pocket. To what extent is that a real fear? When you look at the landscape of such collaborative projects, do a lot end up with one side rolling over for the other?

Ponak: In none of these stories was that the case. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that each side was acting in their self-interest. They weren’t trying to be altruistic. They weren’t after peace at any cost. They were simply acting in a way that while they were pursuing their self-interest, they could do it constructively with the union or the employer. That’s why the credibility of the people involved on both sides was so crucial. I think it’s easier for people who already have established their bona fides in their own organizations to do that and take the risk. Because you’re right, particularly for the union leadership, there’s always the accusation: “Well you gave in. You co-operated. You could have gotten more.”

At Powell River (see case study on page 10), the fact these were people who led the strike in 1997 meant that everybody knew these people weren’t pushovers. The executive team at Catalyst — they took a huge amount of heat from the rest of the industry. They were prepared to take the heat. I remember CEO Russ Porter, in one of the comments that didn’t make the film, said one of the things that made him try to change the way things were being done was he started out in the mill town. He grew up in that community. His kids grew up in that community. The kids played soccer together. They went to PTA meetings together. He said, “These people weren’t my enemy. How have we created a labour relations system that somehow turned them into my enemy?”

That was a motivation for change. You’ve got to find a better way of doing it. They were willing to take risks. They had credibility and they were able to take some of their doubters along with them.

CHRR You also observed an absence of jargon in these case studies.

Ponak: I just saw so little of the flavour-of-the-month club or “Here’s the latest management guru. We’ll invite him in. He’ll sprinkle some fairy dust and all the problems will be solved.” That was a really nice thing. They, by and large, did it on their own.

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