Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

A House Divided

January 1, 1989 -

Labour relations in Canada are torn between an approach based on cooperation and one inspired by conflict. Although in real life the choice between them is often murky, these two opposing views set the tone for employer-employee relations.

The advocates of cooperation believe that labour and management share interests and concerns that must be approached with a measure of trust and mutual respect. Some have successfully implemented cooperative schemes (such as the Quality of Working Life (QWL) programs) in their own workplaces. Those who support the conflict approach are equally convinced that the interests of "Labour" are diametrically opposed to those of management and that management will always try to exploit workers and destroy unions. Workers must therefore strive to totally restructure labour-management relations—even society—and in the meantime fight the boss. Any cooperation with management, they claim, weakens the workers' militancy and is really just a management ploy to destroy unions.

Marxists, who like to think of themselves as the truly progressive, can be found at the extreme end of the conflict position. Dispersed among Canadian trade unionists are those who, wittingly or not, promote the Marxist-inspired conflict approach to collective bargaining. These unionists see attempts to develop a cooperative relationship (such as QWL reforms) in the workplace as a dangerous management trap. They exhort workers to refuse any kind of cooperation and to persevere in a relentiess war on the other side of the bargaining table.

While considerable division exists in the house of labour on the virtues of each of these approaches, many representatives of the mainline unions, organized in the Canadian Labour Congress and their provincial federations, have spoken loudly in favour of the conflict approach to labour relations. It is obvious that this position has far-reaching implications for the development of labour relations and of the national economy in Canada. One area where the adversarial stance of the CLC and its affiliates has come clearly to the fore is in labour's attitude to the new Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. With few exceptions, leading trade unionists have repeatedly denounced the Agreement as a conspiracy by big business against labour. They have done their best to transfer the conflict approach from individual workplaces to society and to the economy at large.

It is safe to predict that companies in which unions are motivated by a class struggle mentality will have a difficult time to survive in the new climate, one in which national borders are becoming less important. Economic well-being will call for ingenuity, flexibility, and cooperation. For this reason, unions who predict nothing but catastrophic results from the Free Trade Agreement and at the same time view management as the enemy may well see their own predictions fulfilled. A house divided against itself cannot stand, especially when the winds of change are blowing hard.

Fortunately, the Canadian collective bargaining scene is not universally bleak. At this stage it is still very much a mixed situation, as illustrated by the following items.

V.J. Udvarhely, an official of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) at Air Canada, is obviously committed to the ideology of conflict. With Marx, Udvarhely believes that the present system causes the "alienation" of workers because they neither own nor have control over their products.

In a Toronto Star article (July 29, 1988), he explains why the QWL experiment at one of the airline's departments failed. According to Udvarhely, management tried to create a union within a union in order to bypass and undermine CUPE. By establishing a new level of union bureaucrats and conducting "brainwashing sessions" similar to Amway Corporation, management separated union members from CUPE's leadership. His conclusion: "Quality of work life is a trap to force workers to adjust to their continuing subordination in the workplace."

Despite what Mr. Udvarhely and his ideological soulmates may claim, there are still many workplaces, including unionized ones, where workers and management do get along. In fact, hardly a week passes without a report of some event or situation that attests to the presence of those who reject the simple-minded view of labour relations. For example, "New Departures in Industrial Relations," a 1988 report written for the British-North American Committee, claims that labour relations in Canada, the United States, and Britain are slowly moving away from the traditional adversarial role. It argues that international competition is one of the factors that has pushed labour and management to rethink their respective positions. The result, states "New Departures," is an increasing awareness of the need for labour and management to cooperate rather than to fight one another.

Prem Benimadhu, labour relations specialist with the Conference Board of Canada, believes that, in the private sector at least, relations between labour and management have much improved since the 1970s. The much lower strike figures in this decade are one proof of this fact. Labour and management realize, says Benimadhu, that in the face of competition they are both in the same boat. (Eric Beauchesne, "Growing Cooperation Seen between Business and Labour," Toronto Star, September 19, 1988, p. Bl.)

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This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment