I have been practicing labour relations for over 13 years, and despite all of my experience, I still run into situations where I dread doing my job.
While I usually love visiting workers on the job site, there are times when the very thought of visiting the workplace can actually put me into a mild panic. In those moments, the worst thing I imagine is the conflict with the employer that will result once I’ve heard the concerns of the workforce and try to address those concerns.
It’s in those moments when I have to work very hard to remind myself of the “why” behind me getting up every morning and throwing myself back into the fray.
In one way, the work a union and an employer do together (labour relations) is simple: just negotiate a collective agreement and then follow it.
In another way, it’s very complex. Both the union and the employer have to interpret the collective agreement, agree on the interpretation, and along the way, keep in mind that all of the jurisprudence from arbitration rulings matters, too. Oh, and don’t forget—both business enterprises and individual people are complex.
Productive labour relations happen when there is a balance between the technical aspects and the relational aspects. Things get very difficult in a variety of circumstances, but the easy traps to fall into are when there is an overemphasis on the technical arguments and enforcement of the collective agreement, and also when there is an overreliance on the relationship so that enforcement is no longer possible for fear of damaging the relationship.
When things get really challenging, labour relations becomes a slow, uphill trudge through quicksand while getting eaten by Manitoba mosquitoes. The parties start to avoid each other; and in the end, the employees in the workplace start to lose confidence that this is working.
One way to get things back on track is to focus on the why. It’s best when why is something that both the union and the employer can likely agree on. For example,
- High employee engagement
- Low employee turnover
- Prevention of workplace injuries
- Success of the business
Once the why is focussed on, it can be easier for the union representative to achieve the positive energy to get out of the quicksand, swat away the mosquitoes, and get some good things done, such as
- Supporting construction workers who are traveling away from home, doing physically demanding work, and living in housing that isn’t their own
- Empowering precarious workers to find their voice in the workplace
- Assisting union members to understand their health benefits plan
- Listening carefully, and “interpreting” to help ensure that management and workers understand each other, because busy work demands and power differences make misunderstandings too easy.
While this is all easier said than done, it’s very likely that focussing on the wrong why will not lead to a productive or progressive labour-management relationship.