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Union-Management Cooperation at Work in Saskatchewan

July 1, 1990 -

Westbridge Computer Corp. was the recipient of a Canada Award for Business Excellence in recognition of its outstanding labour-management relations. This company is the outcome of a 1988 merger of four provincially-owned (Saskatchewan) companies that were subsequently privatized. To move from adversarial to cooperative labour-relations, as well as from a publicly-owned to a privately-owned company, is undoubtedly a daunting challenge.

The groundwork for healthy labour-management relations at this company was laid by one of the original participating companies, the Regina-based SaskComp Ltd., under the direction of president Gerry Thorn. In 1986 management began a program of continuing dialogue and trust building with the unionized workers. The leadership of the employees' union, a local of the Energy and Chemical Workers union, was ready for a change. They realized that the confrontational methods of the past were fueled by underlying frustrations that needed addressing. The employees were interested in more than just haggling over money issues; they were looking for recognition as people with ideas and pride of workmanship.

When workers and management sat down to explore common problems and objectives, they discovered, in the words of Mr. Thom, "...when we really got down to it, we both wanted the same thing—a good challenging place for people to work." (Jim Sutherland, "State of The Union: How One Company Benefits from Continuing Dialogue," Canadian Business, June 1990, p. 153)

Yet initially both parties found it hard to abandon the old ways of confrontational bargaining. They agreed to call in an outside professional mediator (facilitator). Under his direction, the slow and tedious job of building trust and cooperation began to take shape. Workers received a financial stake in the company in the form of 100 shares. Management started a program of education and information sharing, and employees formed self-directed work teams. Morale began to improve, evident in increased productivity and a decline in sick leave and grievances.

The reality of any private business is that it must be competitive and profitable. Westbridge is no exception and, finding itself in a highly competitive sector, required extensive internal reorganization.

This company still faces difficult adjustments due to new acquisitions and a net loss for the year ending March 31. But management and employees continue to work at proving that cooperation and trust building is the better way.