A group of top company and labour union representatives have produced a surprising analysis and set of recommendations for needed and possible improvements in labour-management relations. The “Code of Conduct for Labour-Management Relations” is the outcome of a series of discussions between representatives of management and labour unions held during 1986 and 1987. Sponsored by the Niagara Institute in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, the purpose of the discussions was to develop a code to help foster more cooperative labour-management relations. The following “principles” underlie this code:
- The legitimacy of trade unions.
- The responsibility of corporations to all their stakeholders.
- The need for adaptation by business and labour to changes in the international economy.
This 37-page document presents an interesting and balanced view of the interaction between unions and companies. Union spokespersons insist on being accepted as legitimate stakeholders in the enterprise; management stresses the need for unions to recognize the peculiar pressures on businesses. Thus, unions demand that businesses “fully recognize the right of workers to organize without interference, and secondly, they must fully understand that workers have the right to collectively bargain” (p.6). The report affirms that companies recognize the need to provide decent wages and safe working conditions to the union members. Similarly, the “Code of Conduct” (subtitled “The Search for a Better Way”) insists that companies need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and that union support for the required flexibility is essential. “It is a prerequisite of success that labour understands corporate thinking and is involved in planning for productivity and survival. Thus, if Canadian corporations are to remain competitive, management must be willing to encourage and accept a greater sense of ownership, shared responsibility and contribution by unions than has been true in the past” (p.9). The study group agrees “that collective bargaining from adversarial positions may in some situations be out of place. Labour and business must share in the need to ensure that the enterprise remains competitive in a very demanding world.” On the basis of this shared set of assumptions, the report lists a number of ways in which open consultation between labour and management can take place.
The parties agreed that when a union signs up ten per cent of the workers in any unorganized operation, management should allow unimpeded access by union representatives to the workforce and refrain from anti-union propaganda during such campaigns. They also recognized the need for open communication between negotiations for renewal agreements, and agreed to a set of rules governing conduct during collective bargaining. Company representatives acknowledged that unions should play a more significant role with respect to problem solving at the corporate policy level, which would include joint union-management approaches to solving problems at the local and industry levels.
The group tried to walk the fine line between the unions’ legitimate concern for job security and the companies’ need for profitability and survival. They agreed that unions should be fully involved in decisions about job changes and work rules. Corporations are advised to accumulate a “retraining fund” to provide skills training to employees affected by layoffs. Working conditions should “meet the employee’s need for self-respect” and provide “realistic and fair opportunities for promotion” (p.29).
By contributing its expertise, labour can improve the quality of corporate decisions and hence competitiveness, states the report. Both parties furthermore agree that the “dignity of man” calls for “treating labour as equal in importance to capital and valuing fulfilling work over drudgery. Power sharing is consistent with this belief, giving workers an opportunity to influence and improve the quality of their lives” (p.31).
A careful reading of this document shows that the two sides made a serious and honest attempt to span what often appear to be unbridgeable differences between them. They were prepared to carefully listen to one another and determined to find a consensus despite strong differences in viewpoint and perspective. As the report says,
Participants themselves, throughout the process, attempted to build consensus, provided tradeoffs in their positions, exhibited empathy for other viewpoints and principles despite their fundamental differences, and did much to create a climate of open candidness and mutual understanding without compromising their deeply held beliefs or principles. (P.37)
This remarkable report deserves wide distribution. It spells out clearly that honesty, tolerance, mutual acceptance, and an awareness that business is a joint effort in which all the “stakeholders” have a legitimate role to play provide a promising basis for improving relations in the workplace. Compared to the tiresome and essentially hate-filled slogans of the Left (including much of Canada’s labour establishment), this joint study is a breath of fresh air.
(This report can be obtained from the Niagara Institute, 176 John Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario LOS 1JO.)