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Eliminating Absurd Work Rules

June 1, 1993 -

Traditionally, unions have taken the attitude that narrow classifications and precisely defined tasks are the means to protect members' jobs. In many workplaces, a carpenter or plumber may not touch a shovel, even if that were the common sense thing to do. These work rules have created a cumbersome set of practices that have added greatly to the cost of doing business. (Ask the owners of unionized newspapers.) But perhaps even more perverse, these absurd work rules undermine the workers' sense of pride, depriving them of the opportunity to experience their work as something rewarding and meaningful.

In a number of instances, unions are digging in and insisting that the status quo be maintained. However, in other instances, unions and companies, driven by economic hard times and a sea of red ink, have come to agree that wasteful work rules are counter-productive. A prime example is provided by recent developments in the pulp and paper industry where collective agreements stipulated that three workers (a carpenter, a mason, and a plasterer) must be present to drill a hole in a wall.

Montreal-based Domtar Inc. has persuaded its unionized workforce that such rules are no longer tenable, and the new agreement now enables different tradespeople to do the jobs of a variety of trades in its Lebel-Sur-Quevillon, Quebec pulp mill. Similar work-rule flexibility is now considered for all of this company's pulp and paper mills in Quebec and Ontario, as well as for its 550 employees at four box plants. Claude Saillant, vice-president of human resources at Domtar, was optimistic that a collective agreement with more flexible work rules will give the company, now weighed down with more than $1 billion of debt, a better chance to improve its financial performance. "We are in the midst of a full recovery and people have come together at the ground level to give the company a chance to make it," he explained. (The Globe & Mail, April 5, 1993)

Other spokespersons for the trade union movement are less than enthusiastic about this new direction. Andre Foucault, an official of the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union, downgraded the importance of what others have called precedent-setting changes in the Domtar collective agreement. A sour Mr. Foucault explained that Domtar is a company that wants to exploit its precarious financial state of affairs. But whatever critics may say, many unions are faced with the necessity of untangling a web of wasteful and demoralizing work rules.