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What Happens to Truth

Searching for a Cure to a Destructive Virus

June 1, 1996 -

Paul Weiler, an authority on labour relations and labour law, published his 1980 book Reconcilable Differences: New Directions in Canadian Labour Law to fine tune the existing process of collective bargaining. His book was not really about new directions, but about shoring up a creaking system of collective bargaining with improvements in the process and organization of labour relations.

For example, discussing the roles of unions and management, Weiler hewed to the old demarcation line. He did not believe that the adversary system could be replaced with a form of codetermination because "there are real and fundamental conflicts of interest between manager and worker." He was of the opinion that "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." He dismissed the idea that everyone should work for the common good of the enterprise as merely "romantic exhortation."

New ground rules

And now, sixteen years later, there is much more talk of the need for new directions. To be sure, there is still plenty of the old-style rhetoric and practice around. But there is also emerging quite a different outlook on both sides of the bargaining table, at least in some corners. Listen for example to what former chairman of the Ontario Labour Relations Board and now Mr. Justice George W. Adams writes about collective bargaining.

Labour relations has always played a leadership role in Canada. Businesses and unions represent vital interests in our communities. Their interactions have set many of the important ground rules by which we live . . .

Collective bargaining has always represented a contest between economic and social forces. Today, however, it is more like the search for a cure to a destructive virus. The old equilibrium between these forces has been entirely disrupted. Global trade and capital markets, aided by new technology and free trade agreements, have literally created "a new economy" which we do not yet fully comprehend. Indeed, the changes are only beginning to be understood and most of us are very frightened and confused. Our understanding, however, is not aided by the rhetoric and other ideological exhortations of either the right or the left. Fortunately, practitioners in the field of labour relations cannot afford to be side-tracked by such bluster. On your day to day efforts depend the survival and growth of business and jobs. ("Labour Law Leads the Way," IRC Press)

Management voices

The voices of management are also sounding a different message from the traditional us-versus-them note. The influential Conference Board of Canada articulated the need for a new way of doing collective bargaining.

There is a growing sentiment in the Canadian industrial relations community that labour and management can no longer afford "to keep beating each other up." As organizations undergo massive restructuring in order to meet the challenges of a dynamic and increasingly competitive new business environment, management recognizes that labour can be an ally and a powerful agent of change. From a labour perspective, playing an active role in workplace reorganizations is a proactive way of preserving the jobs and prosperity of members and making the work environment safer, less stressful and more rewarding. . .

Interaction among employees, management and unions is becoming more frequent and more complex. Employees are being asked to become more involved in day-to-day decision making. Their input into continuously improving the work processes for which they have taken on increased responsibility is integral to the new high-performance work systems. At the same time, trade union representatives have increased their level of involvement in strategic organizational initiatives that affect the livelihood of their members. This has put labour leaders in a precarious position, with significant implications for their role as employee advocates.

At the heart of labour-management cooperation on workforce change initiatives are questions about how work itself is organized. How should work be structured so as to tap new sources of productivity and ensure safe, secure, fulfilling employment? Within the unionized labour force, this question raises others: Who makes decisions about how the process can be improved and who redesigns the systems? What are the implications for skills development and employment security?

—Ruth Wright, "Managing Labour Relationships in a New Economy," The Conference Board of Canada, 1995) 

These opinions expressed by a long-time labour relations practitioner and a management publication take us a long way from the ideas Paul Weiler expressed in 1980. What about the trend on the shop floor? There, too, stirrings of a different, more cooperative kind of labour relations can clearly be detected.

Case Study: Changes at SaskEnergy

SaskEnergy is a Saskatchewan crown corporation employing 830 workers that split off from its parent organization SaskPower in 1988. (See Paul Jay, "Union-management Accord Helps Prevent Downsizing at SaskEnergy," Workplace News, June 1996.) It is responsible for the transmission and distribution of natural gas in the province. Faced with the prospect of job losses and privatization, management and the bargaining agent for the employees, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 649, decided to embark on a different way of doing labour relations. They established new, quick-acting committees with responsibility for resolving problems and facilitating ongoing communications between management and the employees. Their new motto is "no secrets, no surprises."

Darlene Light, spokesperson for Local 649, explains that management now goes directly to the union to discuss and resolve problems. The first joint initiative was an eight-member dialogue committee where both parties had an opportunity to listen to one another. Other committees were put in place to deal with such issues as training, health and safety, and employment equity.

The new style of labour relations helped to change attitudes on both sides. They have developed greater appreciation for the problems of the other party. For example, union members learned about the budgeting process, which provided them with a new perspective on the problems faced by the company, especially in the face of the government's determination to control its spending. Says Light: "You realize when you see the process that there are reasons why they make the decisions they make. It's not just a case of the management being jerks. So whether we agree with those reasons or not, at least we understand them."

There has been some downsizing, but job losses were handled by attrition, while the reduced workforce was provided with more training so that employees are able to handle a greater variety of jobs.

Robert Haynes, company vice-president of human resources, agrees that the new approach works. "It has helped break down barriers. . . . The biggest obstacle is starting out with the attitude that 'we have ours, you have yours, and we're not going to give anything up'. We had to learn how to develop trust ... and now we don't have to wait until the contract is up before we can discuss issues in the workplace."

There are still some feelings of dissatisfaction on the part of employees, but the difference is that they understand why certain decisions are made. Above all, they themselves are part of the decision-making process and have developed a sense of ownership. There is a new attitude of trust and a sense of shared responsibility that enables them to handle and resolve problems before they turn into insurmountable obstacles. Both sides agree that the joint decision-making committee approach is central to the success of this effort.

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