Labour strife from coast to coast

Unions are “getting their act together,” becoming more vocal.

News of strikes and strained labour relations have dominated papers across the country in recent months — from striking transit workers in Vancouver, school support staff in Ontario, to a walkout of public-sector employees in Newfoundland.

What began as a quiet year on the labour front seems to be heating up, contrary to earlier predictions that it would be a relatively calm year for labour relations

Despite this, some researchers still hold that there are signs that, in the private sector at least, labour relations will become more peaceful and collaborative in the coming months.

Not all are as optimistic. Lloyd Field, employee relations consultant and author of the best-selling Unions are Not Inevitable, says the recent strike action is evidence of a labour backlash — employers are taking the heat for new economic pressures and realities of globalization and technology combined with the fact that employees feel they’re losing control. Management too is feeling squeezed from either end and looking for some relief. Signs of it are everywhere in the workplace — from a new interest in spirituality in the workplace to a more holistic approach to work. It’s an indication that the relentless changes to work are taking a toll.

“There’s a degree of synergy when you get this much discontent about the economic and political situation. The climate is ideally right for this backlash,” says Field.

“It’s the collective psyche,” he says, and everyone is out to protect their own interests.

That, coupled with the fact that unions have been more vocal, visible and pushing their agenda more than ever before.

“The union movement is getting their act together. I see it year after year, they are getting better and better,” says Field.

While he applauds the efforts of unions and employers that attempt a collaborative approach to issues, Field says the adversarial nature of the two sides’ interests will always keep them apart. In cases where there is collaboration, Field says it is usually superficial. He isn’t too optimistic about unions and management ever really getting along.

“I don’t think (unions and management fully co-operating) could happen because I don’t think the system inherently allows for it to happen,” says Field. “And, I don’t see any real attempts being made at this collaboration. It’s pie in the sky.”

But, there is hope, says Field. Labour relations in this country can improve if employers realize that profit is not the only thing that keeps a business running smoothly. Employers need to put processes in place to ensure they are treating employees right and that they have the leadership needed to be responsive to employee relations.

“That’s the part the employer needs to address. It’s not an earth-shattering message. Short-term greed is a long-term formula for seeing your business in chaos.”

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