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It's Time for Renewal and Reconciliation

January 1, 1996 -

Never again should Canadians allow a dispute to get as ugly as the Giant Mine strike in Yellowknife, the bloodiest in Canadian history. .. . Canadians can't affod labour wars like this one, but how do we stop them? —from an article in Workplace News (January 1996) 

A recent Macleans-CBC poll found that most Canadians expect that life will get harder, unemployment will increase, social benefits be cut, and that Canada as we know it will no longer exist. "The Canadian state of mind is bleak—there is a profound sense of unease in the land," said Bob Lewis, editor of Maclean's. Rapid and far-reaching changes have created widespread uncertainty around the globe—fertile soil for social and political conflict.

The workplace has been especially hit hard. Gone are the days of steady wage increases, job security, and union growth. Large-scale layoffs, corporate downsizing, and changing patterns of production and marketing have wreaked havoc with the lives of millions of workers. Unions are under the gun to find ways to protect their members, but they have lost much of their previous clout.

An uneasy alliance

Traditional trade unions—premised on conflict between labour and management—are in serious trouble and deeply divided. Labour's recent soul-searching has often turned into rancorous debate. Some want to stick to the old adversarial ways; but others are pragmatic moderates who believe that the time has come to sing a different tune.

This inner debate within trade union ranks caused a great deal of grief to former Ontario Premier Bob Rae—a reflection of the inherent untenability of the trade union-political party alliance. When the NDP in Ontario first came to power in a surprise election victory in 1990, Rae emphasized that he intended to govern as the premier of all Ontarians. In other words, no special interest politics. But the merger of "labour" and the New Democratic Party is undergirded by a class-based concept of society. Politics is the means to obtain power for the purpose of restructuring society in keeping with the socialist ideal.

Such a view, however, is in fundamental conflict with the idea that governments are to do justice to all citizens, not just one segment of society. A party committed to a class-based division inevitably runs into the problem that it cannot and will not promote the public interest but only the partial interest of one particular segment.

Rae's predicament was that he was unable to convince members of the trade union movement to compromise their commitment to the original socialist view of government and society. Hardliners refused to compromise and, not surprisingly, they accused him of selling out to the enemy.

A house divided

Adversarial labour relations itself is in serious trouble, not necessarily because people think it is wrong in principle, but simply because it has run into the wall of everyday reality. Hard economic times demand that labour and management work together rather than fight one another. A house divided against itself cannot survive long in today's global economy.

Some hold that the adversarial approach is the only one possible. Paul Weiler, former chairman of the British Columbia Labour Relations Board, explained in his trend-setting book Reconcilable Differences (1980) that

there are real and fundamental conflicts of interest between manager and worker. Ultimately that conflict is reducible to the issue of how we will divide up the economic pie between consumption and investment, between work and leisure. ... It is the job of the union representative to press for higher wages or greater job security for his members, and he leaves to management the role of protecting the enterprise by improving technology or increasing productivity. 

Weiler dismissed the idea that labour and management could cooperate and work together for the common good as nothing more than "romantic exhortation." But such a one-sided description of the labour-management relationship ensures that the workplace remains a battleground of competing interests. In such an atmosphere, no company can flourish, nor can workers experience their work as a rewarding and meaningful part of their lives.

The adversarial view tends to reduce the purpose of work to its financial component. For workers, their job is a means to an income. For employers, work is part of the cost equation. But the consequence is that workers are no longer respected as human beings, each with his or her own aspirations, interests, abilities, and needs.

Long shadow

The scientific management theories of Frederick W. Taylor at the turn of this century have cast a long shadow over labour relations. Taylor reasoned that efficiency was the key to productivity and higher profits. His influential work gave rise to an extreme form of division of labour which allowed little responsibility for individual workers.

Ironically—and unfortunately—unions adopted a collective bargaining position that incorporated many features of scientific management. This is how rigid classifications, separation of tasks, and tight job controls became general features of collective bargaining. Thomas Rankin, author of New Forms of Work Organization (1991), pointed out that the style and content of collective bargaining became the mirror image of Taylorism.

Rigid job classifications meant that collective agreements became highly legalistic sets of rules designed to keep an uneasy peace between two antagonists—a cease-fire agreement of sorts. Taylorism served to perpetuate alienation and distrust between labour and management, and created an atmosphere in which a hard-line stance became the admired quality of successful trade union leadership.

Trust, respect, justice

Placing labour relations on a different footing begins with respect for what it means to be human beings together in this world. Deep within most of us is a longing for meaning and significance. If we probe a little below the surface, we discover a desire for fulfilment, being accepted, and achieving a sense of accomplishment for what we do, also in our daily work.

In the workplace, three essential ingredients are required if we are to meet our desire for significance: trust, respect, and justice. Trust means that we accept others as fully responsible and trustworthy persons. This is a two-way street. If we insist that others trust us, it implies that we are willing to trust others. A humane society cannot function in the absence of trust.

This does not mean that there aren't dishonest people around. But to establish healthy relations, we must begin with trust, not distrust. If management begins with the assumption that workers cannot be trusted and must be controlled, the stage is set for poisoned relations. And vice versa. But, if we begin with a spirit of mutual trust, this sets the tone for a very different relationship, one in which good things can happen.

Respect means regard for one another's interest and wellbeing; it is to realize that we—any one of us—are not the centre of the universe. We do not have an unfettered right to think and act as we please. Without respect for others, life easily spirals down into an ever-escalating fight for selfish gain. And selfish ambition can easily turn into hatred for others. Right now in many parts of the world there are heart-rending examples of this reality. In the workplace, friendships, jobs, and companies have been destroyed in bitter conflicts. The murder of nine workers in the Giant gold mine in September 1992 is an extreme example.

True respect for one another must be based on something deeper than self-interest, logic, or even goodwill. All of these are ultimately quite unstable and unreliable. The real basis for respect is our humanness—we are created by God who made us in His image. To be human means to reflect something of the Creator's greatness. That is the fundamental reason why life is sacred.

In labour relations, mutual trust and respect would end the us-versus-them antagonism and open the door to cooperation. New ways of organizing work—so that workers are treated as responsible partners in a common enterprise—can then be explored, opening the door for justice.

Justice means to treat one another fairly, to give everyone their due. But what is everyone's due? In labour relations, we often limit our view of justice to wages and benefits. But I would argue that it has just as much to do with the way work is organized and managed. Justice requires that workers are able to find a measure of enjoyment and a sense of achievement in a job well done.

For justice to take place at work, adversarial labour relations and the traditional top-down authoritarian management style must make way for a much more open style of managing—one based on a sense of partnership so that workers are included in the decision-making process.

Reliving old virtues

None of us can escape the reality that there is no absolute certainty about our political, social, and economic circumstances. Some companies and jobs will disappear; some will continue to restructure, also at the cost of jobs; others will adapt and flourish. It all depends on how we meet the challenges and difficulties that confront us. Success depends on rediscovering and reliving the old virtues of trust and respect, and a willingness to treat one another justly.

We do not need to be ruled by the law of the jungle, where might makes right. The Good News is that we may live by the gracious rule of a loving Creator. What is of utmost importance for good labour relations is the recognition that we are all created for freedom and responsibility. Our daily work is a means to make a living. But, more than that, it is an avenue for expressing what it means to be truly human.