It's a Culture Thing
/ Author: Eric Nederlof
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It's a Culture Thing

CLAC believes working together, rather than launching power struggles, will achieve the best outcome for everyone

By Eric Nederlof, Solidarity Program and Support Local Manager

An organization’s culture is defined by its character and the values it demonstrates, both internally and externally.

Its unique culture is one of the main ways an organization makes itself stand out from similar institutions. 

Take the example of a Christian educational institution. What does it mean and how does this manifest itself? Someone might look at education and say culture makes no difference as the outcome is the same. After all, 2+2=4 in any and every school and the same should go for the factual basis of knowledge in any subject. But it is in answering the “why” and the “how” questions of life, more than the “what” ones that will highlight an institution’s character and values.

The same can be said of CLAC. Looking from the outside, one could assume it is just like every other union. It negotiates contracts, files grievances, and advocates for employee rights.

But when we answer the why and the how questions we see the character and values at work—both internally and externally—and how they impact the way CLAC serves its members.

A union is often viewed suspiciously as an outsider, an interloper, or a third party. This can be especially true from the management side but can even be seen that way by members of the union. Often, their thinking is that the union has its own agenda and will instigate the further breakdown of the employee/employer relationship.

Unfortunately, that view is not always wrong. Many unions have a track record of using power dynamics to “even the score” and drive further division into a damaged relationship. In many ways, they act as a divorce attorney in a marriage that’s dissolving and they fight to get their client the bulk of the assets, often introducing problems that were never an issue between the parties before.

CLAC is not like that and never has been. It is based on values of respect, fairness, dignity, integrity, cooperation, and partnership. We are convinced that union representation works best by fostering an atmosphere in which employees and employers can work together in partnership to achieve shared interests and to help eliminate attitudes and actions that get in the way of this. There is no upside to creating issues that aren’t there, or to having an independent agenda that doesn’t serve the membership’s needs.

To continue in the vein of the above analogy, rather than a divorce attorney, CLAC seeks to act as a marriage counsellor. We see our role as bringing healing to relationships so that they can become healthy and mutually beneficial, where each party wants to show goodwill toward the other.

While it is true that labour relations systems in Canada are set up with the expectation of an adversarial relationship and we are bound by particular elements of the laws and policies within them, we are still able to successfully carry out our cooperative methods with parties that are willing.

There are, of course, some roadblocks to achieving healthy workplace relationships.

First of all, power and decision making are not equally distributed among staff, and interests among coworkers are not perfectly aligned. Within each workplace there are varying roles and levels of responsibilities. This can be viewed as an inherent and irreconcilable conflict with the only solution being to fight power with power, which is what most mainline traditional unions do. 

At CLAC, we believe class, position, and identity are subordinate to the inherent dignity and equality of all people, regardless of their roles and responsibilities. So instead, through cooperation and respect, we pursue better outcomes for the greatest number of people using dialogue and reasoning rather than exercises of power.

However, collaboration without power is not how life usually works. In order to dialogue and reason together it is essential that those with more power (i.e. the managerial class) reciprocate and demonstrate that they trust the people they are leading, believing they are seeking the right solutions to the issues being faced with good-willed intentions.

Careful listening and interpreting of different voices helps ensure that both management and employees are understanding each other. Too often, high work demands and power differentials lead to misunderstandings. In the various workplaces where we serve, workers and management should be able to focus on doing their work, on being experts in what they do, and expressing their interests through their work in a way that it is useful to others. One of our main goals as a union is to help them do that by applying our area of expertise to remove barriers and address labour relations issues that distract them from their work.

Labour relations is complex with a variety of factors that affect how it is approached and carried out. Future articles will delve more into some of those different factors and their effects.

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