New climate of collaboration in labour relations on the horizon

Conference Board data shows new era in industrial relations.

Collective bargaining, by its very nature, is an adversarial activity. And although this type of relationship will likely continue in the future, there are clear signs emerging that indicate a more positive union-management landscape in Canada.

Consider the following:

•Strike trends continue to spiral downward on the national scene. According to Human Resources Development Canada, the amount of time lost to work stoppages measured 0.02 per cent of all working time in 2000. This is a further decline from the 0.04 per cent in 1999 and continues the downward trend of the last 20 years.

•Work stoppages are not expected to be significant in the year ahead. According to the Conference Board of Canada, 91 per cent of the 179 unionized organizations surveyed recently expect no stoppage in 2001. In fact, only three per cent anticipate a strike or lockout.

•The use of joint labour-management (JLM) committees is on the rise. The use of JLMs is a clear sign of improving union-management relationships. In 1999, for example, 67 per cent of all collective agreements in Canada contained at least one such committee.

And the future looks bright for collective bargaining. According to the Conference Board, only 11 per cent of organizations expect a downturn in union-management relations in the year ahead.

How has this new relationship manifested itself? Quite simply, both employers and unions have come to the realization that a more co-operative relationship can have a significant and positive impact on a company’s performance.

The extent of co-operation varies among organizations, however. While some are truly committed to the concept of “partnership,” others are developing a more business-focused relationship. Still others are at the beginning stages, introducing collaboration within union-management dealings. The Conference Board’s Industrial Relations Outlook 2001 recently focused on several leading Canadian organizations that demonstrate these three trends.

A commitment

to increased collaboration

Because of significant government cutbacks throughout the decade, the 1990s were not especially positive for labour relations in the Canadian public sector, at either the federal or provincial levels. Wage freezes and job losses, combined with legislated settlements, created an unpleasant atmosphere for workers, according to Mike Martin of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. “But things can only get better,” added Martin in a 1999 interview with the Conference Board.

In fact, things have gotten better. Governments are spending again and, although some labour unrest at the provincial level has been witnessed in recent days, an improved relationship is emerging in the broader public sector.

Canada’s health-care system is a case in point. Pressure on labour relations in health care has been immense in recent years due to the funding cuts introduced by the various levels of government throughout the past decade. Although recent funding increases have improved things, management and unions are still expected to come to the bargaining table with diverse needs in the year ahead. In Ontario hospitals, for example, while management seeks enhanced operational flexibility and job description enhancements, unions are looking for wage increases, work-life balance and employment security.

As a result, both sides are attempting a more collaborative mode to bargaining, according to Lori Findleton, vice-president of human resources management services with the Ontario Hospital Association. Interest-based negotiations have been introduced in some sites, says Findleton, and management has made a commitment to allow for more input from front-line staff.

Canada Post, an organization with a storied history of union-management conflict, is another example of improving relations. Faced by the intense demands of a competitive market in mail delivery, management and union leaders realized a change in the labour relations climate was critical to the survival of the organization.

As a starting point, management and one of its unions, the Association of Postal Officials of Canada, established joint labour-management committees on innovation, product development and service delivery. Interest-based negotiations were also introduced into the bargaining process in 1999. There now appears to be a willingness for management and unions to work together, according to Doug Meacham, former corporate manager of industrial relations with Canada Post. “Our long-term success…is dependent on union-management cooperation.”

A commitment to partnership

In the latter part of the last decade, the international forest products firm Weyerhaeuser Company Limited and the Industrial Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA) struck a partnership agreement based on the following eight principles:

•a commitment to real partnership;

•a focus on expanding the business through continuous improvement of work processes;

•an employment security commitment ensuring that no employee will suffer a loss from participation in the partnership;

•shared or consensus decision-making;

•shared information and open communication;

•ongoing learning and skill development for all employees;

•a strong union and a strong management team; and

•respect for co-operative and adversarial roles played by both union and management.

The IWA agreed to partner with management on productivity advances, product research and development and even marketing in exchange for employment security at a number of sites across the country. This partnership was essential, says Gordon Nickel, director of labour relations with Weyerhaeuser, as “the fighting was neither productive nor helpful.”

With trust, commitment and accountability at the forefront, the union is now involved in the running of the business.

And it has worked; costs have been lowered and jobs have been saved. In fact, the company and union are currently jointly rolling out the program to include all of the Weyerhaeuser-IWA sites across the country, to allow workers at these sites to voluntarily sign up for the partnership.

A commitment to

a business focus

Though not defined as a “partnership,” the relationship between Bombardier Aerospace and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) has improved in recent years due to its increased business focus. The company has made a firm commitment to full disclosure with the CAW, not only during bargaining but also throughout the life of the collective agreement, says Bernard Cormier, Bombardier’s vice-president of human resources.

The improving relationship can be attributed to several key factors:

•The company believes in keeping the union apprised of all relevant business information. Surprises launched on the union are strongly discouraged.

•Management and union meet regularly to discuss any potential problems and to share information.

•Joint site visits have been used to study the manufacturing processes at other Bombardier sites.

•Union and management participate in several joint labour-management committees.

These strategies are working, adds Cormier, as “both management and union agree that this is a good company to work for.”

Due to its very nature, collective bargaining is an activity fraught with tension and conflict. Recent developments illustrate, however, that this tension is becoming less significant in the union-management relationship. While some companies and unions are establishing full-fledged partnerships, others are taking the first steps towards greater collaboration. As best articulated by David Haggard, president of the IWA Canada: “Labour and management do not need to be enemies…there is no reason why we cannot work together to increase profits.”

Derrick Hynes is a research associate with The Conference Board of Canada. He is author of the Conference Board’s Industrial Relations Outlook 2000 and 2001 and the forthcoming Industrial Relations Outlook 2002. He can be reached at (613) 526-3098 ext. 408 or [email protected]

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