Ramp It Up!
/ Author: Geoff Dueck Thiessen
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Ramp It Up!

Communication in labour relations is one of the keys to success in building a win-win relationship

By Geoff Dueck Thiessen, Regional Director, Winnipeg Member Centre

I was in bargaining recently, and we had proposed for the employer to develop a standardized training related to health and safety, in consultation with the union. The employer responded that it couldn’t have the union dictate safety.

It was a clear example of how words matter. To me, consultation didn’t mean what they thought it did.

In labour relations, communication between the employer and union usually fall into at least three categories:

  1. Notify – The employer advises the union of something important. For example, the employer can notify the union of the need for layoffs. Unions don’t typically get to dictate how many employees are employed, but they do benefit from knowing when layoffs occur. 
  2. Consult – The employer seeks the union’s input and takes it into consideration. A good example here is policy development. The union is a stakeholder in the employer’s policies; however, it shouldn’t be so involved in the employer’s operations that it actually writes the policies. Involving the union in policy development is a good way for the employer to gain insights from the union, and it also increases the likelihood of buy-in and compliance from employees.
  3. Negotiate – Negotiation is the highest level of union engagement. This most obviously applies to collective bargaining and is the biggest benefit and consequence of unionizing. Employers typically want to limit the number of working conditions that are negotiated because it limits their flexibility. On the other hand, negotiating with employees through the union is a way to ensure fairness, consistency, and employee buy-in.

The other obvious category is Ignore. Ignoring is a form of communication, because it sends a signal even if that signal isn’t intended. When someone is ignored, they might conclude that the other party is being secretive, intentionally avoiding the input or perspective either because that input could be threatening, or irrelevant.

Ignoring does make sense in some situations, but in many cases, it ends up causing injury. When we ignore, we need to ask ourselves if we’re comfortable with the conclusions others might draw about our intent.

Perhaps we should think of communication like smiling. If we all tried to smile a lot more, we might feel silly, like we’re overdoing it. More likely, we would just appear a bit more pleasant.

Similarly, ramping up the level and frequency of communication might feel like overkill; however, it’s more likely that a lot more communication will actually end up feeling about right to those we’re interacting with. In labour relations, it’s one of the keys to success and a win-win employer/union (employee) relationship.

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