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An Experiment That Failed

January 1, 1989 -

The Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre, a brave attempt to search for and encourage cooperative workplace arrangements, is no more. Its end is cause for rejoicing among those who believe that management and labour are class enemies and should not even try to get along. Don Wells is one of those; he claims the Centre's ten-year history has been "a litany of repeated hope followed by frustration and conflict."

Wells believes that managers used the QWL programs to increase control over workers and to undermine the union and the collective agreement, thus causing increasing dissatisfaction among workers and union leaders. That's why, he explains, local union leaders who cooperated with the QWL fell out of favour with their own membership and lost elections. This development led to the 1984 withdrawal of the Ontario Federation of Labour from participation in the Centre's work, which significantly contributed to the Centre's eventual demise. And even though the Centre is now closed, says Wells, "cooptation" in the workplace and in the conference rooms is intensifying: "This increasing attack on adversarial unionism—the only real unionism there is—remains the chief challenge to labour in the 80s" (Don Wells, "Ontario's Quality of Working Life Centre Dies: But Cooptation of Labour Thrives," Canadian Dimension, October 1988, pp.26-27).

The closing of the Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre, which began with high hopes for improving labour relations, is a bad omen for the future of labour-management relations in this province. Some legitimate criticism against the operation of the Centre may well be warranted. In his review for Ontario's Cabinet, Ronald Dunning reported that the QWL Centre operated at a too abstract level and so failed to catch the imagination of labour and management. He suggested that even the term "quality of working life" caused some people concern. Though once an admirable idea, Dunning reported that the time for the Centre had passed, especially since the OFL had withdrawn its support. He predicted, however, that Ontario's increased awareness of QWL principles will present opportunities to develop better human relations in the future.

In a lengthy article on the Ontario QWL Centre's closing, Wayne Roberts reveals that considerable backroom negotiating took place before labour agreed to support the idea of the QWL Centre in the first place. For example, labour leaders demanded that government introduce legislation requiring automatic union dues checkoff in first contracts, which strengthened union control over jobs in Ontario. Government agreed to this condition. It's not surprising that the Centre eventually collapsed on that kind of a foundation.

Though class struggle adherents are glad, the rest of us have reason to regret the closing of the Centre. It was at least one attempt to break through the adversary mentality in the workplace. The failure of this attempt may well mean more traditional, adversarial collective bargaining. As Roberts puts it:

As long as the centre existed, there was a slim possibility that [failure to recognize the need for industrial and workplace restructuring] could be corrected. Without it, the province will stumble into the fastest-paced technological revolution of all time without government sponsorship of the most elementary debate over values and choices. (Wayne Roberts, "Demise of an Industrial Dream", Now Magazine, June 2-8,1988, p. 12)

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