Welcome to the Twilight Zone—otherwise known as British Columbia, with its wacky world of industrial relations.
The hundredth anniversary of Labour Day was celebrated this year. The media observed this landmark event by interviewing movers and shakers in management, labour, and (always a risk!) academia about the state of labour-management relations in Canada today. British Columbia Federation of Labour president Ken Georgetti resisted any suggestion that the labour movement was in retreat.
We’re not getting weaker. We’re getting a lot more intelligent in our approach. As a result, people might perceive us as less militant and might see that as being weak. But our approach is a lot more sophisticated than 100 years ago when we had to prove our resolve. (The Vancouver Sun, September 3, 1994)
Unfortunately, Georgetti forgot to inform certain IWA locals about the new, more sophisticated industrial relations now being practiced in our province. They went out- on strike shortly after his remarks appeared in the local paper, despite the fact that contract talks with Forest Industrial Relations Ltd. (the employer group) were ongoing, and that IWA-Canada had not sanctioned job action. The Labour Relations Board was asked for, and subsequently granted, a cease-and-desist order to the employers, ruling that the walkouts were illegal as long as contract talks were ongoing. The striking locals ignored the ruling and continued to picket their particular mills.
But back to Georgetti. As he remarked upon how the labour movement was evolving in this new era of freer trade and global competition, he explained the ways in which the labour-management relationship was adjusting:
Today the labor movement is as likely to be working with employers to address common problems or interests as assuming adversarial positions he suggested….”We’re more consultative and more adaptable and flexible because of the needs of our members.” Union leaders say they are moving away from confrontations aimed solely at higher wages or longer vacations.
Meanwhile, back in the forest:
British Columbia forest workers’ union officials were to meet today to plot strategy after contract talks collapsed yesterday…. [IWA-Canada President Gerry Stoney] said unionized workers had reached an “impasse” with Forest Industrial Relations Ltd., which represents 110 companies. Talks broke down in a shouting match yesterday morning . . . The companies nudged up their wage offer to six per cent over three years and a $500 signing bonus for full-time workers. The union responded by lowering its wage request by two percentage points to 13 per cent over three years. (The Vancouver Province, September 12, 1994)
My purpose in recording these excerpts is not to pass judgement on the offers or demands of the two sides in this particular round of negotiations, nor to suggest that blame for an impasse lay in any particular place. Not a whole lot has changed in Canadian industrial relations in recent years, Labour Day rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Unions and managements still assume an adversarial stance, negotiations are as much an exercise in power as they are in problem solving or conflict resolution, and the focus in negotiations is still bread-and-butter issues such as wages and benefits.
Management must lead
That no industrial relations system can be strike-proof or conflict-proof is self-evident. Any relationship involving independent participants, even in a partnership, who must work together will encounter difficulties when varying goals, perspectives, and priorities are involved. The cracks in the German industrial relations model during the recent recession illustrate that even people who have worked harmoniously will realize conflict, especially as resources become scarcer.
The question that needs to be asked is this: on what basis could a relationship of trust and respect be developed between a company’s management and its employees’ union? The decision to show respect or to trust another party requires a moral choice by individuals. No system can replace a person’s own determination to be respectful and trusting. Nevertheless, I believe that human desire and determination can be facilitated if certain institutional arrangements are developed. As a management professor, it is my personal opinion that leadership should come from management in preparing the ground from which trust and respect can grow. As a professor in a private Christian university, I base my reasoning on what I consider to be clear biblical direction.
Given my place of employ, I encounter numerous Christian businesspersons. Frequently, they find that their workers have opted for certification. It is extraordinary how often they feel that the employees have done something sinful in choosing to form a union. Invariably they blame it on a few rabble rousers who deceived the majority into feeling that they needed union protection. Never do they suggest that some deficiency in their management style might be the cause. Given a chance to interview their employees, I have found that their reason for deciding to certify is almost invariably the same—exploitation.
I once interviewed the senior vice-president of human resources for one of Canada’s larger private sector organizations. When asked about his view of the role of unions, he responded with the following rhetorical questions:
Are unions dinosauric? Are they living in an adversarial age which is counterproductive given today’s global realities? Yes, I think so.
If there were no unions would managements exploit workers? Probably.
Studies indicate that one of the main attractions of union membership to many individuals is fear of exploitation by management. (Exploitation of individual members by their own union is another problem, but that’s for another article.) The Bible is quite realistic on the issue of exploitation. It seems to take for granted that individuals in a more powerful position (for example, church leaders, husbands, parents, and masters) will inevitably take advantage of those weaker or more vulnerable than themselves, even within the ranks of the church, and warns against it in the strongest possible terms. No doubt this was because the surrounding cultures of biblical times were characterized by exploitation of anyone in a weaker position. (Has anything changed?) Christians needed (and still need) to “unlearn” unjust practices.
Those same Christian managers might respond that whatever motivation their employees had for forming a union local, the company inevitably will suffer as a result. But studies in the United States have shown that unionization is not necessarily incompatible with productivity and competitiveness and may at times enhance it. (See, for instance, John Hoerr’s article “What Should Unions Do,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991.) In addition, “deunionization” led to a significant drop in the real wages of workers during the same period (1980-1992) in which executive salaries increased by 511 per cent. (See J.A. Byrne and Chuck Hawkins’s article “Executive Pay: The Party Ain’t Over Yet,” Business Week, April 26, 1993). Unionization may pose some significant financial problems for certain firms. But the issue of exploitation is a serious one. Management cannot justify an anti-union stance by saying that unionization inevitably dooms a company to decreased efficiency.
Unfortunately, in the Canadian industrial relations climate, the presence of a union seems to bring with it the assumption (on both sides) that an adversarial relationship must be adopted. Walter Stewart, a lifelong union man, put it so well:
With few exceptions, the negotiators for both unions and management share the belief that the best of all possible industrial relations systems is free collective bargaining: workers and management wrestling to obtain a contract covering wages, hours, and conditions of work. Each tries to get the best deal; management to give as little as possible, labour to collect as much as possible. Only when this bargaining process has failed may there be any outside interference in the form of mediation, conciliation or arbitration of a strike. But a strike should not be interfered with unless it is doing so much damage to the public that it can no longer be tolerated. Ideally, the two sides should go at each other until one or the other collapses. Elk in the rutting season follow the same rules. (Walter Stewart, Strike!, McClelland Stewart, 1977, p. 13)
The same senior vice-president who believed that managements would typically exploit workers who lacked protection believed that unions need to be brought into partnership with management. He felt that management must take the initiative in overcoming the adversarial relationship. To this point, he said, management has been guilty of not creating teamwork that inspires excellence. To overcome traditional hostility and create a partnership with employees requires first and foremost that managers be servant-leaders of their employees. Employees must be treated with dignity and respect. From his Christian point of view, the vice-president based this style of leadership on God’s view of individuals as worthy of His love and the death of His Son on their behalf.
I draw two conclusions from this analysis. First, managers should not be surprised if their workers seek a certain amount of independence within the workplace. To a certain degree, unions may represent a needed check and balance on management’s tendency (consciously or unconsciously) to exploit. Secondly, the presence of a union does not dictate an adversarial relationship. Trust and respect are live possibilities. I challenge managers to pursue them.