Employers more positive than unions about state of industrial relations

Perspectives on labour-management co-operation vary greatly, research shows

For years labour relations experts have called for greater union-management co-operation in the workplace but many labour leaders resist joint ventures with management. Why do unions appear so reluctant?

For one thing, though co-operative ventures are meant to be advantageous to unions as well as employers, research has shown the supposed benefits for organized labour — greater economic benefits, access to information, enhanced job security — may not materialize.

In part this may be because of fundamental breakdowns in these relationships, which stem from disagreements between union and management about the effects of attempts at co-operation. Often, both sides have very different perceptions about their relationship and, it is important to note, perceptions drive behaviour.

If an employer sees the labour-management relationship as good, it may behave in a certain manner and have a set of expectations concerning union behaviour. But if the union believes the same relationship is bad, its behaviour and expectations will be very different than the employer would expect.

Over the past several months, I have been talking with union officials from across the country about labour relations issues. In addition, I’ve surveyed about 275 union presidents and employers to find that unions view the state of relations in a more negative light than does management.

Union officials and management representatives were asked about the quality of their relationships.

The results illustrate the different perceptions of labour and management. For instance, employers are noticeably more likely to say the relationship with the union is co-operative. Almost seven per cent of union respondents viewed the relationship as very adversarial, compared with less than two per cent of employer respondents.

Similarly, almost half (45 per cent) of union officials indicated a somewhat adversarial relationship (score of three or less), as opposed to about 17 per cent of management.

Why do many unions see their relationship with the employer in such a negative light? The majority of union officials reported that:

•the employer and union often do not exchange information freely;

•management frequently does not seek input from the union before initiating changes;

•union and management do not respect each others’ goals;

•most unions have little involvement in strategic decision-making; and

•their union does not have a lot of trust in the employer’s ability to manage the organization.

Given these results, it is not surprising so many union officials say their relationship with management is adversarial.

To what extent do the parties support co-operative programs? Again, both employer and union respondents were asked to rate the level of support of each of the five parties identified in figure 2.

Union officials said local union leaders were most supportive of joint programs while supervisors and upper management were least supportive.

Employers had a very different view. They said upper management was the strongest supporter of joint initiatives, while the weakest level of support came from national union leaders.

In examining the results, two other points warrant mentioning. First, note that the level of support for any group is modest at best. Second, we again see differences in perceptions between union and employer respondents. For instance, employers see upper management as being most supportive of co-operative programs while union officials see management as least supportive.

Some union leaders embrace the concept of co-operation with the employer, yet others see such efforts as a means of shifting power to management.

Union officials argue that many employers focus on short-term budget or profit goals, frequently resort to short-term downsizing strategies as a means to manage change and are often unwilling to openly share information and power.

The survey results also give some indication of why unions may be reluctant to co-operate with management. For instance, about 51 per cent of unionists agreed with the statement that the interests of the employer and union are in conflict, close to 40 per cent perceived that management sees co-operative programs as a way to reduce union power and about one-quarter reported that these initiatives threaten the existence of the union.

It appears that the parties differ both in terms of their perceptions of the labour-management relationship and the level of support for co-operative programs. In addition, many union leaders do not see their relationship with management as one of open consultation and trust.

It can be argued that the relationship between union and management has been, and will remain, adversarial. But there may be opportunities to work together. Doing so requires both sides to realize that their interpretation of events may differ. This in turn drives behaviours which appear counter productive. Considerable effort by both unions and employers must be made in order to understand what motivates the behaviour of the other if co-operative programs are to succeed.

Terry H. Wagar is professor of industrial relations at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. He can be reached at [email protected]

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