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By: Rod McCorriston, SGEU, Director of Labour Relations

The management-union relationship feels like an arranged or forced marriage without the option of divorce. You’re in it together, so you might as well try to get along and perhaps you can find some commonality of interests for the betterment of the workplace. If the collaborative approach is to be effective, there are some things to take into consideration:

  • The need for a continuous relationship
  • How to meet the needs and goals of each party
  • How to minimize the negative effects on each party
  • Cost containment
  • How to achieve a solution by consensus, where both parties agree, as this promotes a greater chance of success and acceptance

In my opinion, there have been different forms of collaborative relationships that have achieved various levels of success and failure throughout governments and organisations across the world during the last few decades. The newest are the lean initiatives, which primarily identify efficiencies in work processes. This is done by tapping into the knowledge of the organization’s employees. This process uses mapping and is able to identify cost savings through increased use of mathematics and charts. The common thread amongst the collaborative approaches is a process that allows for input from its employees. This input is sought prior to making decisions, so it enables the employer to make more informed and effective decisions.

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Where to Start?

In order to move towards a more collaborative relationship:

  • Upper levels of management must demonstrate the desire to initiate this type of relationship change with its union counterparts. If the organization provides direction without explaining the benefits available under the change in relationship, then success will likely be short-lived.
  • The two parties, management and the elected union representatives, have their respective roles and there needs to be recognition and acceptance of these roles.
  • Management’s primary role is to make decisions in order to operate the organization in a safe, efficient, and profitable manner.
  • The union’s primary role in the collaborative relationship is to improve the working conditions for its members. Unions usually have different communication avenues, which may diverge from the organization’s, but these can be tapped into by management to increase communication.
  • If the union representatives are allowed to provide input prior to the decisions management are required to make, then hopefully better decisions are made by incorporating input from front-line employees. In addition, the decisions made will be better received by those most affected.
  • The interests of the two groups may diverge in the short-term, but they can be made compatible, since both parties need an efficient and profitable organization to survive.

From Confrontation to Collaboration

Promoting the collaborative relationship is much like fostering and supporting an infant in the early stages of development. Continuous support and open, frequent communication is required early in the relationship and will assist in building trust between the parties. This scaffolding, or support, will diminish as the relationship ages and levels of trust are established. There may be an inherent level of distrust from the many years of participating in the confrontational environment. This may be difficult to overcome and will only be successful if the commitment is demonstrated from upper management. Senior-level management will need to take the initiative to instruct and convince the middle managers of the benefits and the potential for administrative savings that could result in this type of relationship.

A consensus decision-making model ensures that there is no eroding of authority from either side of the relationship. In a consensus decision-making model, consensus must be achieved prior to implementing any changes. Management must operate the business, so if there is no consensus on a decision that has to be made, then management may make it without the involvement of the other party. This is used to keep both parties engaged in the collaborative relationship until all options are exhausted. It is acceptable not to use this process for all the issues, but rather, decide which ones might be solved using this approach.

Union representatives and the membership will have to enjoy some benefits from participating in the decision-making process. It is best to start with some non-controversial issues, where benefits can be easily obtained. It is important to celebrate successes in a very public way, as this promotes union acceptance of the new relationship amongst its membership. Trust is very fragile and there is a need to place special emphasis on communicating frequently with the union and management. This builds a level of trust incrementally with the union and vice versa. Any disputes or disagreements will need to be worked through quickly and management needs to explain clearly why a union’s desired change might not be possible. Trust is crucial to establishing a solid foundation on which to build the desired collaborative relationship.

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