Developing co-operative union-management relationships: A partnership approach to conflict

Creating healthy and productive labour relations requires unions and management to treat the relationship as a partnership and make a firm commitment to foster it.

Understanding how to form partnerships, appreciating the different styles of group interaction, the components of effective partnerships and the effectiveness of a partnering retreat is essential to developing and improving the partnering effort.

Group dynamics

The first phase of a new relationship includes identifying who is on the team, determining what the individual roles will be and the objectives of the team. This is important in the union-management context as the change of players can disrupt even the most collaborative team.

New groups inevitably go through a disruptive stage where the individual team members challenge each other to determine limits of behaviour and function. Groups emerge from the disruptive phase with a mutual understanding of behaviour and administrative norms. When the team enters the collaborative stage, the group starts to perform and takes the team function to a higher level.

Like individuals, groups have different styles of interaction. These may include avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising and collaboration.

Typically union-management relations are characterized by avoidance or competing behaviours. The ideal style of course is collaboration, with compromise and accommodation used in appropriate circumstances and not always by the same party.

Effective union-management teams have mutually understood goals, clear roles and responsibilities, efficient operating procedures, constructive personal relationships and an ability to resolve conflict in a timely manner. Ideal partnerships are able to conduct effective meetings, identify and solve problems, give and receive information and are able to make decisions and evaluate progress.

Tackling the reality

Too often, however, reality falls short of the ideal. This is primarily due to people issues, environmental factors and process limitations. Individuals may have personal conflicts or are unable to take shared risks. The organization may be going through unprecedented change or there may not be opportunities to share information and resolve conflict informally.

For example, in one organization, the use of infrequently scheduled ad hoc labour-management meetings resulted in a failure to recognize and deal with a series of concerns about internal investigations. The “falling through the cracks” further fractured the relationship between union and management and resulted in a process review.

The breakdown in communications could have been avoided with the use of regular meetings with clear agendas and circulated minutes. Had the issue been raised in a formal way, the matter could have been dealt with expeditiously and there would have been no need for a systemic process review.

Too often parties move to the facilitated or binding resolution stage without satisfactorily sharing information and negotiating informally. Partnering should be the first step in developing co-operation and thereby preventing disputes. Mediation and negotiation should be used prior to formalizing the grievances or prior to going to arbitration. A large part of effective union-management relations is the ability to give one another a “heads up” about emerging issues and trends as well as share information relevant to the resolution of those issues.

The partnering retreat

Other industries have benefited from partnering workshops to build relationships for the specific purpose of completing a complex project. These facilitated workshops encourage participants from all sides to design and implement communication channels and efficient conflict resolution strategies. These retreats provide an opportunity for parties to participate in an interactive, relevant discussion about the terms and expectations of the union-management partnership with opportunities to speak together and work on issues. Of course, buy-in from all parties is critical to success, including human resources and senior management as well as unions at both the local and central levels.

In order to facilitate cooperative union-management relations, the partnering retreat must address three key areas:

•joint commitment to working together;

•ability to share relevant information within an appropriate time frame; and

•ability to informally resolve conflict early.

Objectives of the retreat should also be clearly defined and reviewed and approved by all parties. The retreat should:

•provide a neutral, safe forum for constructive discussion of staff and management issues and concerns; and

•develop processes to facilitate communication and resolve future issues respectfully and in a timely manner.

The format of the retreat should include an opportunity for the facilitators to understand the different party’s issues prior to the retreat. For example, the facilitators could conduct separate preliminary meetings with the management and the union prior to the retreat.

The agenda for the retreat should include:

•introductions, workshop objectives and ground rules;

•information sharing to ensure mutual understanding of roles, rights and responsibilities, and processes for resolving interpersonal, labour relations and professional issues;

•joint sharing of issues and barriers identified in the preliminary group meetings;

•facilitation exercise to identify characteristics of an optimal working relationship;

•generation of options and solutions to implement an optimal working relationship, develop mutually acceptable communication process, and develop a means to resolve conflict prior to implementation of formal grievance procedure; and

•wrap-up and follow up action plan.

Co-operation does not mean abandoning established rights and responsibilities guaranteed by legislation and collective agreements. Management is still accountable for the efficient running of an organization and the union is still accountable for representing memberships interests individually and collectively. There will continue to be situations where the parties must agree to disagree. However, union-management relationships can be improved by putting processes in place to communicate differences, clarify issues and concerns and to develop mutually acceptable options prior to implementing formal binding procedures.

Anne Grant and Judith Clarkson are directors of Mediated Solutions Incorporated in Toronto, a conflict management and dispute resolution firm. They can be reached at (416) 408-1700 or 1-866-800-0020.

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