Management and labour can work together

Joint projects show employers and unions can find common solutions for workplace problems

Management and labour are often cast as opponents on two sides of the same fence. Sometimes, however, when they look over to the other side, they may find they have more in common than previously thought: common frustrations with existing processes or shared visions of where the organization should be.

The federal government’s Labour-Management Partnerships Program (LMPP) has witnessed many such instances where management and labour have proven the value of co-operation (see sidebar for more on the program). Yes, it takes time and effort to work in concert, to maintain an open mind and listen to all sides’ concerns. But, as the following participants have found, the time and effort is worth it.

Saskatoon revamps harassment complaint process

At the City of Saskatoon both management and the unions showed a sense of frustration about the process for dealing with workplace harassment complaints. There was a feeling that problems were not being handled effectively. Complaints were reaching a crisis level before a proper investigation took place or before attempts were made to resolve the problem. As a result, the city saw an increased use of sick leave, as well as a rise in transfers to other work sites.

That was why the City of Saskatoon and its nine unions and employee associations set out to assess problems with the existing process and create a new workplace harassment process. After extensive consultation among union and association memberships, a joint labour-management sub-committee was set up to develop a new draft harassment policy.

One of the things wrong with the previous policy was that complaints were not dealt with informally where they began. The process, which quickly formalized complaints and took them to a high level for resolution, fostered resentment. Witnesses often found themselves in a difficult position both during and after the problem was dealt with. At times, the unions were in the awkward position of defending members on opposite sides of a complaint. As a response to these problems, the new policy brought the resolution process back to the work environment where it started.

The key was to make sure that managers, supervisors and union reps had the right conflict resolution skills to solve problems earlier in the process. Recognizing that support was needed to properly implement the new policy, the joint committee also created a training plan for managers, supervisors and the union executive in managing conflict, as well as a communication plan for all employees. These plans formed the basis of the joint funding application to LMPP.

Over the next several months committee members met more than 250 people throughout the organization to provide information about the project and give an overview of the new policy. These meetings served as a backdrop to the introduction of the policy and to the two-day conflict resolution training sessions. These sessions were designed to provide skills to those involved in the new process.

In the end, more than 300 people took the training and additional sessions covered those who missed the first round. Participants were highly enthusiastic about the training, with many feeling that they could use the skills in both their work and home lives.

As one project participant summed it up: “Right from the beginning this was a joint project and we all had the same concerns. Involving everyone takes longer, but it’s more effective.”

Halifax facility streamlines arbitration

A similar sense of frustration with the status quo lay at the centre of another project funded by LMPP. What drove this project at Our Neighbourhood Living Society, a Halifax-based operator of homes for the mentally challenged, were concerns about delays and costs associated with the arbitration process. Both the employer and the union, the International Union of Operating Engineers, were determined to provide a better environment in which disputes could be heard — one in which both employees and front-line supervisors could participate.

Working together, the parties obtained LMPP funding to create a pilot grievance resolution process that could be used by other small- and medium-sized companies and unions.

Working with a private-sector consultant who had developed a process for other industry-labour settings, the group spent more than a year remodelling and rebuilding the process to suit their own needs. Their aim was to set up a system that was not overly technical and maintained a balance between employer and union interests.

Training sessions were held throughout the country and several more are planned before the project winds up early in 2005. During the training, participants gain the skills to directly handle grievance cases, in effect, becoming “peer panellists” who would be crucial in the new two-part grievance resolution system.

In the first part, two union representatives and two employer representatives — none of whom can be employed by or related to the local union leadership or the employer who has the grievance before the panel — sit on a panel to hear grievances. Cases are presented in the simplest fashion: no arbitrator or lawyer is involved, and references to case law are not permitted in the proceedings. Decisions are final and binding, but not precedent-setting, and are usually given the same day. A short written decision is typically available within 48 hours.

Four to eight cases a day can be heard with usual subjects including discipline issues, job postings, work assignments, missed work shifts, and language interpretation.

In the event of a deadlock, the case may proceed to a second level of hearing or to a traditional arbitration board. If a second level of hearing is used, parties select an arbitrator from an agreed-upon list. Working with an employer and union panellist who, once again, cannot be employed by or related to the local union leadership or the employer going before the panel, a second hearing takes place.

Again lawyers and case law are excluded, and as hearings are short; two to three grievances can be heard in a day. A short decision is given that day and provided to the parties within 48 hours.

In these second level hearings, grievances tend to include contract language interpretation, disciplinary grievances or any issue that does not require a precedent-setting decision. If there is a deadlock, the arbitrator can make the final decision.

Following the training sessions, some participants have to put their skills to use in as little as two weeks. In answer to a question about whether there were any limitations on the project, union rep Ted Crockett said he thought that dismissal and human rights cases might be the two areas most likely to be excluded from this process. He added, however, that the more they use the process, the narrower the list of excluded items becomes.

The new process helps reduce the costs involved in grievance resolution. As an example, one recently trained employer participant had two similar grievance resolution cases. One went through traditional arbitration and one went through the new peer-panellist process. They achieved basically the same results, but whereas the case going through the traditional process cost the employer $3,500, the cost of new process was only about $875.

Ontario textile firms address ergonomics

A third LMPP project, one very different from the two projects described above, similarly demonstrates the benefits of labour-management co-operation.

With 25,000 members, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (which has since merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to form UNITE HERE Canada) has an obvious interest in ergonomics. Working with two companies in southwestern Ontario, John Forsyth Shirt Company Ltd. of Cambridge and Ike Behar Inc. of Guelph, the group received funding for a project to identify and solve ergonomic problems at the factories.

Working first with one company, and then building on the findings to work with the second company, the group realized small ergonomic successes. Solutions were as simple as repairing backrests and educating workers on how to adjust chairs for proper posture. Raising fabric bins or cutting out the side of the bins allowed operators easy access to the fabric without having to reach or bend over.

The successes helped to increase the trust and communication between the team members and the workers. Word spread and more people became interested in what was being achieved. While there was an initial lack of understanding among employees of the long-term benefits of ergonomic changes, over time, people began to recognize that something as simple as reorganizing the layout of the workstation could work to their benefit.

Sometimes there were challenges. In this kind of work, time is money and floor space is valuable. Making changes to workstations sometimes called for creative efforts. As a large number of workers were newcomers to Canada, a language barrier also posed a challenge. Fortunately, with co-workers sometimes acting as translators, this challenge was overcome.

By the end of the project a total of 23 ergonomic changes were found in the two workplaces and 17 changes were successful and adopted. The remaining six changes have been analyzed and solutions are being tested. Many solutions cost less than $50 to implement.

An added benefit was that smaller changes were often identified and implemented in the course of identifying bigger changes. The changes have been documented, project results have been published and will be distributed in an easy-to-read handbook. In the end, working co-operatively has paid off for all the parties involved and sets the stage for future co-operation.

Katy Burnett is a senior conciliation officer at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. She can be reached at (819) 994-1597 or at [email protected].

Federal program funds co-operation

Success through co-operation is nothing new for the folks running the federal government’s Labour-Management Partnerships Program (LMPP). Established in 1991, the program helps to fund a wide variety of projects that have at their heart, the promotion of labour-management co-operation.

LMPP is operated by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is located in the Labour Program at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. LMPP is designed to encourage effective labour-management relations in the workplace, or at the sectoral level, by providing funding assistance that supports efforts by unions and employers to jointly explore new ways of working, and of working together.

With an annual budget of $1.6 million, LMPP supports pilot or demonstration projects. Applications must be made jointly by unions and employers, or by organizations representative of the interests of both labour and management. LMPP funding is available to a maximum of $100,000 per project, over a period not exceeding two years. Funding covers up to one-half of the costs associated with the project, with some cost exceptions.

More information about the Labour-Management Partnerships Program can be obtained by calling 1-800-563-5677 or by visiting the program website at: (click on Partnership and Funding and then on Labour Partnerships).

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