This essay is based on “Cooperative Labour Relations: Translating Theory into Practice,” a symposium conducted by the Work Research Foundation on November 25 and 26, 1999 in Vancouver, B.C. Symposium participants included Mark Alexander (consultant, Mark Alexander and Associates), Dan Anderson (chief negotiator, Ontario Nurses Association), Reg Basken (executive vice-president, Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union), Geoffrey Crampton (corporate director labour relations, Overwaitea Food Group), Charles DeJager and Peter Mogan (lawyers, Sauer Mogan DeJager & Volkenant), Frank Kooger (representative, Christian Labour Association of Canada), Stephen Kushner (president, Merit Contractors Association), Bert Painter (independent documentary filmmaker), Ray Pennings (project director and symposium facilitator, Work Research Foundation), Robert Pruden (director of labour relations, Manitoba government), Rod Schenk (representative, Christian Labour Association of Canada), Andrea Solberg (professor, Trinity Western University), Dr. Gideon Strauss (research director, Work Research Foundation), and John Sutherland (trustee, Abbotsford Public School Board). To facilitate candid discussion, participants were assured that specific contributions would not be attributed.
It is tempting to think that the road to labour-management cooperation can somehow be mapped. Just follow the directions and eventually wind up at some sort of nirvana-like labour relations destination.
Human relations, however, are not that simple. As anyone with front-line experience in the labour trenches can tell you, talking about the concept of cooperative labour relations is quite a different thing from implementing it, especially here in North America, with our rough and tumble labour relations system.
Labour relations is not about two negotiators agreeing on something and signing a document. It involves organizing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees, supervisors, managers—each with their own perspectives and motivations—towards common purposes and actions.
Having everyone agree on just a few easy issues can sometimes be a challenge, never mind the nightmare of actually trying to get everyone on the same page. While the path to such cooperation cannot be mapped, some active steps need to be taken if the words of enthusiasm spoken in meetings or documented in legal agreements are to have any front-line meaning.
What those steps should be was really the focus of the symposium, and the discussions addressed a number of questions. Should the steps to building cooperative labour relations focus on changing attitudes? Is cooperative labour relations about implementing certain structures for communication between workers and their managers? Is there a particular set of skills that need to be learned by both sides?
The symposium began by attempting to identify challenges that make getting on the road towards labour-management cooperation difficult. Using Mark Alexander’s Transforming Your Workplace: A Model for Implementing Change and Labour-Management Cooperation (Kingston, Ontario: Queens University, IRC Press, 1999) as a discussion starter, participants identified specific initiatives of cooperation attempts they had been involved in and analyzed why the initiative succeeded or failed.
Four themes emerged as the major obstacles that any attempt at cooperative labour relations need to deal with.
Getting beyond the initial impetus for change. Whether the example was implementing a specific local initiative, such as a profit-sharing arrangement, or a very conscious change in strategic approach by the management of a recently-certified thousand-plus employee company which had fought union organizing drives for over two decades, participants pointed to an immediate identifiable reason that usually causes parties to pursue cooperation initiatives.
The more serious the issue, the more dramatic the shift towards cooperation. Crisis-driven urgency forces both sides to adopt different attitudes in order to avoid the dramatic consequences of not cooperating. But once the crisis subsides, consensus about the merits of cooperation dissolves. New issues arise, and the parties default to adversarial attitudes.
Those leaders on either side who suggest that perhaps the model of cooperation that helped solve the past crisis deserves further support end up facing political risk for this position. They end up feeling that the effort of cooperation is not worth the aggravation or the risk.
Alexander’s observation that examples of labour-management cooperation remain “more the exception than the rule” and that “their rate of diffusion has been limited and they often suffer from a limited life span” was supported by the examples raised by symposium participants. He suggests that sustainable labour-management cooperation needs to be introduced within a larger model. Elements for such a model include beginning in an area of emerging relationship, rather than areas where the parties have had a traditional adversarial relationship; defining the process and incorporating a conscious skills-training component into it; and using an outside facilitator to help the parties overcome the inevitable obstacles that tempt them to abandon cooperation at the first hint of difficulty.
The cultural context. Cultural expectations of adversarialism make building cooperative labour relations more difficult. One participant’s example involved a joint labour-management safety initiative at a multinational company engaged in a high-risk sector. The company was initially reluctant to involve the union in setting up the safety program, worried that it would lose control over the safety process which was a vital consideration in bidding for new work.
After 15 years of working together, the cooperation initiative could only be categorized as a success. Data supported the positive effects of the training, and the company avoided the labour unrest that plagued the rest of the industry.
However, the management team that implemented the process was replaced as part of a corporate restructuring in the wake of the 1998 Asian flu. The new president had never been involved with labour-management consultative processes of the sort that were in place. Part of putting his stamp on the company included axing the joint program.
It is difficult to explain this behaviour in the face of clear evidence that the program was working. But it is hardly the exception. Symposium participants multiplied examples in which the cultural expectations of the workforce, the training of management, and expectations of industry peers all bias towards adversarial labour relations. Unless there was a principled rather than simply a tactical buy-in, the cooperation initiatives were short-lived.
Given that the legal framework governing labour-management relations in North America is based on the premise of conflict between the parties, this is hardly surprising. As Alexander notes, many innovations introduced in the last few decades have come from behavioural science fields. Little has been done to adapt the legal and administrative framework within which these new techniques are being practised.
Complicating the issue is the natural avoidance of change. Some individuals feel threatened by any redistribution of decision-making. Those on the management front-lines see their own role and influence being diminished.
There is also an inherent risk in being out-of-sync with the rest of an industry, and, in spite of progressive rhetoric, many companies are hesitant to take real innovative steps in this area. Human relations is rarely the expertise of senior decision-makers, and while someone with an R&D background might be comfortable taking risks on the production side, they do not have the same comfort zone with human resource innovations. This tends to reinforce a conservative, traditional approach to labour-management issues.
Partnership and trust. Cooperative labour relations needs top-to-bottom buy-in and cannot be accomplished simply with the agreement of a few representatives around the bargaining table. Building trust, particularly between the leadership and those to whom they are accountable, is crucial for sustaining cooperative initiatives.
Several examples raised by participants pointed out that the gap in attitudes between those directly involved in joint processes and those to whom they were accountable widened over time. Those directly involved developed ownership and enthusiasm for the concept while the rank-and-file membership (on the union side) and ownership (on the management side) develop a cynicism that prompted them to quickly abandon cooperation.
The dynamics of union activism also play a factor. In a stable work environment with a relatively happy workforce, union activism is usually lower, which means that the more militant element of the union membership has a disproportionate voice at union meetings. This makes cooperative labour relations a more difficult political road to navigate since union leaders have little incentive to go through the trouble.
When the work environment is not as stable, the membership is more likely to get involved, but they also have a more negative attitude towards management, whom they blame for the labour relations problems. Union leaders naturally respond with a more militant approach, and the likelihood of enhancing trust relationships in such an environment are minimized.
A crucial element of building partnership and nurturing trust is managing expectations so that the promises of labour-management cooperation are not over-sold. A common feature of the success story examples cited by participants was the care taken to limit expectations and promises of the cooperation initiative.
In managing expectations, it is important that both parties recognize they have different roles, and just because they are jointly committed to working together does not mean they will necessarily agree on everything. Part of the success of cooperation is recognizing its limits and not allowing disagreements in other areas to negatively affect the relationship.
How things could have been done better. Almost every example raised by participants included commentary on how to do things better. Perfect execution isn’t a prerequisite for building cooperative labour relations, but the tolerance zone for error is small.
Teaching listening and communication skills to those in leadership positions is one such example of how things could have been done better. Stories were told of how the seeds of failure for well-intentioned initiatives were sown here.
For instance, workers invited to participate in a group process designed to incorporate front-line input felt intimidated by the formal meeting structure and provided answers only to direct questions. They went back frustrated and cynical about the waste of company time and money on meetings. Management in turn was frustrated by the lack of input and held up the experience as an example of why involving front-line workers in the decision-making process was a waste of time.
As self-evident as it seems, cooperation initiatives often fail at this elementary level. The forums and structures put into place need to suit the comfort zones of the participants if the process is to be valuable. And appropriate training in the softer skills of leadership and communication are necessary ingredients usually overlooked.
Lasting buy-in of cooperation initiatives also requires solid build-up. Growth is unlikely through rapid, radical fixes. But the process must also be fast enough so participants see tangible benefits before frustration causes abandonment of the initiative.
After identifying obstacles, symposium participants turned to specific initiatives and practical steps that could help in moving parties towards a more cooperative relationship. While specifics must vary according to local circumstances, some steps are broadly applicable.
Selling change. If trust is the essential lubricant without which a cooperative labour-management relationship cannot function, planning for sustained cooperation must begin by hammering shut the door of trust-eroding, unrealistic expectations. This implies taking care in the use of the language used to describe change.
If the intent of cooperation is to move away from positional bargaining between labour and management, then people should not be asked for their positions. Instead, the climate must be open to a variety of ideas which participants can propose without obligation. Semantics become very important in the process of changing attitudes.
It also implies defining the limits of a proposal so that successes can be measured. In the long run, buy-in will only occur as everyone sees the value of cooperation. This cannot degenerate into a self-serving scorecard in which only reinforcing news is communicated. Trust cannot be built if people do not trust the information given. Positive spin may delay a reaction for a short period of time, but real cooperation requires everyone to deal with the facts as they really are and confront the real issues.
Incorporating informal environments—where everyone gets get to know each other as people, rather than in their formal roles—is an effective way to sell change. This was reinforced by several examples raised by participants. Particularly in situations where there is a history of hostility, informal processes are an essential ingredient in breaking down barriers. This may take the form of retreats, social outings, or the use of simulation games.
In managing expectations, it is important to keep the focus away from the change itself. Focus on the need for change. People will not abandon a familiar model unless they are convinced improvement is only possible through change. The status quo provides a comfort level for people and can be a powerful stumbling block.
Institutional integrity. Cooperative labour relations is not about blurring the lines between management and labour. They have distinctive functions, and understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities is vital if cooperative labour relations is to work.
Front-line representatives need not only understand each other’s roles, they also need to be sensitive to the dynamics and time lines that characterize each occupation. Unions are democratic institutions whose internal dynamic is primarily affected by the bargaining cycle and the internal election/convention cycle. Effective management representatives learn to understand and respect the dynamics that surround those events and the effects that these have on leaders. They also learn quickly that commenting on or taking sides in internal union matters is a recipe for long-term distrust that will be very difficult to overcome.
Similarly, effective union leaders learn to understand the business cycles and the positioning that management takes in response to those cycles. While these vary widely depending on the ownership and the sector within which the company operates, understanding and adapting to these time lines is crucial for success.
Cooperative labour relations requires leaders in both institutions to develop an appreciation for and respect for the integrity of the each institution and its internal dynamics.
Training. Developing a training culture goes hand in hand with building cooperative labour relations. One participant noted that the term “coaching,” rather than training, might be more accurate. Cooperative labour relations is about improving people’s competence at all levels of the company.
For people to be committed to shared goals, they need to comprehend what those goals are and have the competency to accomplish them. This requires a top-to-bottom approach to training involving all workers in the company, not just those at the upper end. More than a specific program or dollar allocation, the training culture that is part of cooperative labour relations is a cultural shift that takes place within a company.
Getting beyond the workplace. If one of the major obstacles to implementing cooperative labour relations is the cultural bias towards adversarial labour relations, steps need to be taken at a broader level than just the workplace to overcome that bias. Participants, however, were cautious in recommending grand industry schemes or initiatives.
Ultimately, cooperative labour relations is a workplace issue. Governments may provide support, incentives, or rewards for those who lead the way, but labour-management relations are best resolved by the institutions directly involved—business and labour—rather than government.
Moving towards cooperative labour relations is not a matter of picking up the road map, following the directions, and arriving at some mythical destination called labour-management cooperation. As in all human relationships, it is a dynamic process that has its ups and downs. It must deal with the quirks of individuality and complicating factors beyond anyone’s immediate control.
That does not mean that the concept of cooperation is an academic one or that it doesn’t have real world relevance. Understanding the challenges and taking practical steps to counter them have proven, as the examples raised by participants demonstrated, to make a real difference in the labour relations environments.
Overcoming the adversarial labour relations model that has characterized Canadian labour-management relations requires systemic public policy change that, to date, has proved elusive. Progress, where it is being made, tends to be localized. As Alexander notes, it is usually “one or two key individuals within management or the union” who advocate a more cooperative labour relations approach in the face of “considerable scepticism within labour and management” about its appropriateness.
The greatest effects of cooperative labour relations are not the broad systemic changes and their economic implications (although I remain convinced that the general economic benefits of a more cooperative labour relations framework would be significant) but the local effects as the creative potential and input of workers are more fully realized. As labour and management within a company work together with greater synergy in pursuit of shared goals, the positive effects go far beyond mere economics. They positively affect the morale and satisfaction of all in the workplace. Companies and unions do not need to wait for grand schemes or broad systemic change to move towards labour-management cooperation. As the symposium examples made abundantly clear, practical steps can be implemented in almost every circumstance. Just as every journey starts with a single step, the objective of a more stable and wholesome labour relations environment can be pursued through local efforts.