Bringing work-life balance to the table

Unions adding work-life balance demands to the collective bargaining process

Academics measure it, employees feel it and many organizations talk about it. Some unions bargain for it, most managers struggle with it and several legislators wrestle with it.

A growing body of knowledge has increased understanding of the impact of work-life balance and well-being on employee satisfaction, commitment and engagement, absenteeism, injury and illness rates, productivity, organizational resiliency and the bottom line.

No sector, industry or work unit can afford to ignore work-life and well-being issues. The question is no longer “Should we act?” but rather “How should we act?”

Though they may be on opposite sides of some issues, labour groups and management are increasingly agreeing that work-life and well-being are critically important to employees and employers. Although they may not have positioned it as such, unions have in effect been negotiating work-life and well-being provisions for decades — what is changing is the focus of such concerns.

In the past, labour has traditionally focused on the work side of the work-life equation, bargaining for provisions related to working time, leaves of absence, training, education, professional development and career advancement, economic security, protections against discrimination, health and safety and the transition to retirement.

These protections help employees effectively manage multiple responsibilities at work, home and in the community.

More recently, unions have been looking to put provisions in collective agreements that improve the “life” side of the work-life equation. There is more emphasis being put on workload issues, overtime and work process designs and unions are looking for family support provisions around things like child and elder care (subsidies, access to on-site programs, resource and referral and backup care). Union negotiators are also increasingly interested in self-care provisions that improve the health of the employees themselves (access to fitness facilities, wellness programs, massage therapy and mental health services).

While unions have traditionally held the view that employees are whole human beings with full and often busy lives outside of work, the recent specific focus on work-life and well-being is in part due to the following key factors;

•increasing workforce diversity and family complexity;

•growing female membership in unions;

•aging workforce;

•increasing recognition of the links between work-life and well-being and organizational success;

•successful history of influencing systemic change (maternity and parental leave, for example); and

•shifting employment relationships towards more non-standard jobs.

Important role of unions

Aside from bargaining for supportive programs, policies and benefits (such as flexible work arrangements), unions are playing a significant role in shaping work-life and well-being strategies in the workplace and in the community in a number of other ways:

•advocating for social policy developments such as the Canadian Auto Workers’ Child Care Campaign;

•setting priorities and managing work-life funds such as the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ Special Needs Program that assist CUPW families with children with special needs with the costs of special transportation, equipment, assistive devises and respite care;

•conducting research, identifying key issues and collecting samples of provisions in collective agreements such as the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s report Family-Friendly Workplaces: A Study of Saskatchewan Collective Agreements;

•educating employers and bargaining units on solutions and strategies such as United Steelworkers’ report It’s a Balancing Act: A Steel workers Guide to Negotiating the Balance of Work and Family Responsibilities;

•developing and delivering programs and services to their members such as the CAW’s child-care subsidy benefits; and

•participating in, or facilitating, joint labour-management collaborative initiatives to monitor the changing workplace and the impact of those changes on employees, their families and the community, such as the Canadian Labour and Business Centre’s Regional Seminars on the Changing Workplace.

Challenges and opportunities

Unions, labour practitioners and employers face many challenges as they strive to address work-life and well-being issues, design and implement programs and policies and develop effective strategies.

First, despite the mounting evidence for work-life and well-being there is continued organizational resistance and managerial reluctance to take steps to address the issues in a unionized work environment.

Second, where progress has been made many of the employee populations still aren’t able to take advantage of work-life and well-being initiatives. In most cases, low-wage and hourly workers don’t have access to benefits programs, shift workers don’t have equal access to community programs and services, factory workers don’t have access to flexible hours, service workers don’t have access to flexible work arrangements or telework provisions, and trades people, outside workers and remote work sites don’t have access to on-site services.

Third, there is increasing debate over what should and should not be within the collective agreement, especially when the issues that need to be addressed include organizational culture, and values such as trust, respect and fairness.

Fourth, implementation and management of work-life and well-being initiatives tend to be the responsibility of joint labour-management committees that require a demonstration of commitment from all players and an investment of time and resources — which are increasingly in short supply — to ensure effectiveness.

Fifth, although labour and management activity has been intense, change has been profound and progress has been swift in the work-life and well-being arena, there is still much to learn. Language needs to be developed and definitions need to be clarified.

Through collaboration, co-operation and communication progress will continue and organizations, individuals, families and communities will benefit.

Nora Spinks, is president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, an organization providing international leadership in the work-life field. Celia Moore, co-ordinates the Executive Work-Life Roundtable, a national forum for HR professionals interested in work-life and well-being. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] or 1-800-965-2414.


For more details on union work-life initiatives review the following:

•Collective Agreements and Older Workers in Canada: An Analysis of Clauses Pertaining to Older Workers in Major Collective Agreements: A Tool for Labour Practitioners and Work and Family Provisions in Canadian Collective Agreements:

•Family-Friendly Workplaces: A Study of Saskatchewan Collective Agreements:

•CUPW’s Child Care Fund Projects:

•USWA Canada’s It’s a Balancing Act: A Steel workers Guide to Negotiating the Balance of Work and Family responsibilities:

•CAW’s Child Care Campaign:

•Canadian Labour and Business Centre’s Regional Seminars on the Changing Workplace:

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