People Are Difficult. So How Should We Work Together to Create Great Workplaces?
/ Author: Andrew Regnerus
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People Are Difficult. So How Should We Work Together to Create Great Workplaces?

Seeking win-win outcomes and good relationships in labour relations

By Andrew Regnerus

Some employers can be difficult. If they were not, the demand for unions might decrease. Difficult employers give union reps job security.

But it’s important to remember that progressive employers are even better for a union rep’s job security.

Unions can add more value when employers are NOT difficult. In my experience, the more that the union and employer engage positively, the more both parties get out of the relationship. Respectful and peace-seeking labour relations results in greater productivity, fewer lost days, and increased recruitment and retention.

When the employer and union partner in training, employment services, pension, health insurance benefits, and union-management interactions, the enterprise will flourish. Employers and workers get more out of the relationship when they gain and access these services than when they are fighting over rights.

An employer who brings an issue to the union-management committee for its feedback is an employer who listens to his or her workers and values their input. This gives employees the sense that they participate in shaping their workplace. Positive interactions give energy and negative interactions take energy. We’d rather spend four hours working together to design a training program than two hours battling a grievance.

Sometimes it’s not the employers who are being the most difficult people in the room—unfortunately, sometimes it’s the union members or even the reps.

We all can be guilty of contributing to workplace toxicity, even if we feel justified in it because we’re responding to the actions, or perceived actions, of the employer. As workers and reps, we must follow the collective agreement as much as is the employer. Making side deals or suspending parts of the agreement part way through the contract term undermine the agreement and lead to uncertainty and confusion. This makes it difficult for the reps, the workers, and the employer to know where they stand and how to plan.

Often, problems fester because direct communication has broken down and becomes tense, rather than productive.

The nagging issues finally emerge at the bargaining table when the parties seek to fix what is broken, or more accurately, what they have broken, over the last few years.

When successful, a win-win contract renewal is an opportunity for a reset of cooperation and respect. A union-management meeting should be held soon after negotiations are complete. It can be more productive to share irritants, annoyances, and problems when the discussion is less about bargaining for a contract and more about creating a peaceful, productive workplace going forward.

Tactics that contribute to labour peace

  1. Look for the spirit of the law not the letter of the collective agreement. Consider what the parties intended even if they didn’t write it well.
  2. Invest time in adopting clear language in every agreement. Deliberate vagueness today is a poor and dishonest mechanism to exert an advantage over the other party tomorrow.
  3. Put everything in writing. A handshake deal may work between two people, but often fails between two parties.
  4. Sign your agreement. Unwillingness to sign off signals unwillingness to commit. Attempts to renegotiate what you have previously agreed to undermines trust.
  5. Make good on implementing terms and conditions for the other party. Don’t try to delay hoping you can reduce what you owe.
  6. Be reasonable. If you are always unwilling to give without taking, you come across as petty.
  7. Accept input and critique. Collective action and collective bargaining isn’t one-sided. We can benefit from the input of the other party. Good faith interaction lays a trusting foundation for labour relations. Distrust is exhausting and we accomplish much less when we are constantly on the lookout for trickery and deceit.

Progressive labour relations takes more work and more creativity than positional bargaining. But that work is rewarded by a sense that the parties are exerting energy for mutual benefit. This leads to stronger relationships and better workplaces. In the end, we can be Better Together.


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