I need to preface this article by explaining my attitude towards unions. I have never been a union member, and have spent a great deal of my time as a manager across the table from union officers, often in negotiation and too often in arguments.
I respect the union movement and recognize that my own income and benefits were based on the wage rates and benefits that the unions in our organizations negotiated. I never lost income by being out on strike, yet I reaped benefits from those who did. I have the greatest respect for those hard-working union officers who, in many cases, held very demanding and thankless positions, especially during the last couple of decades while my industry (pulp and paper) has been in decline, with many plant closures and substantial “downsizing”.
Some of the union officers I worked with perceived me to be “anti-union”. I am not. What I was against was the abuse of power that was exercised by some union officers, by extracting excessive benefits through illegal job action or the threat of job action, sometimes to the extent of threatening the existence of the company that employed me. What they don’t know is that I had many more disagreements with managers whose actions (or inaction), to my mind, posed the same threats.
In my career I was the manager of maintenance in three large pulp and paper mills in British Columbia and one in New Zealand. These operations shared one unfortunate set of circumstances, in that they operated in an environment of almost continuous labour unrest. There were several reasons for this, including governments that were sympathetic to the labour movement, a work force with several members whose background was in militant labour unions in the UK and companies that openly acted as though they had money to spare. I do believe the old adage that “management gets the union it deserves” and I did observe senior managers taking actions that led to a very adversarial union-management relationship, or avoiding actions that should have been taken, contributing to the same result.
It seemed that any action or decision that would benefit the company was automatically opposed by the union, whether it would benefit the union and its members or not. My perception was that both sides contributed equally to this unfortunate state of affairs. In at least two cases that I can remember, large operations in financial difficulty reached an agreement with their employees to accept modest concessions that would allow the plants to continue operating, but the union leaders forbade the concessions with the sad result that both plants shut down permanently.
Some years ago when pulp and paper companies were enjoying good profits, illegal strikes followed by the almost-automatic “cease and desist” orders from the various labour boards were frequent events and were almost accepted as a way of life. As a maintenance manager, I spent far more time on industrial-relations issues than I did on improving plant reliability.
During this time I was fortunate to be visited by a distant relative, who happened to be a director of the German Federation of Trade Unions. In our discussions it seemed to me that he held to a philosophy which was more in line with North American business than with the unions with which we were trying to work. I invited him to visit our mill to meet with the union-management grievance committee (the “Standing Committee”) which he did.
His presentation introduced this group to a refreshing new way of thinking. He explained that the German unions had two over-riding objectives:
- To ensure that the companies that employed their members were successful (i.e. profitable) and
- To ensure that their members received their fair share of the results of that success.
A union working to make their “enemy” (the company) successful was a new concept for many of those at the meeting. Looking back, it is interesting to note that over the last few decades, those pulp and paper mills that still operate in the very difficult environment that they now face seem to be those that have taken steps to ensure that the management and the union share at least some common goals, including survival.
In the early 80’s I worked at one BC mill that was suffering during the one of the first major downturns in the industry. As middle managers we were very fortunate to report to an extremely supportive mill manager who was prepared to allow us to tackle some long-standing issues, including the restrictions that the union had placed on the ability of the tradespeople to use their skills. “Tradelines”, although not defined in the collective agreement, were strictly enforced. For example, to build a simple set of steel stairs required both a welder and a millwright, and if the handrail was round, also a pipefitter. Such restrictions dramatically increase the cost of maintenance work – in fact, this mill had a “strike backlog” of work that was carried out by non-union supervisors during the frequent work stoppages because the number of different trades required to do the work during normal operation made scheduling almost impossible. At least equal in importance to the added costs, the tradelines that were observed greatly limited the amount of satisfaction tradespeople could derive from doing their jobs.
With careful planning and many hours of discussion (during which the focus was always on the benefits to the tradespeople and never on the benefits to the company) an agreement was reached and most work restrictions were removed. It was not necessary to include the discussions in the negotiation of a new collective agreement because, with a couple of small exceptions, the collective agreement in place at the time did not list trade restrictions. The most rewarding day in my career was my last day at that mill, when several tradespeople visited my office to thank me for initiating the change that had allowed them, as one said, to “just get on with the job, without looking over my shoulder” (see “The high cost of restrictive work practices“).
The health of the union-management relationship is often reflected in safety performance. A positive work environment encourages people to plan their work and to act responsibly, which includes working safely. A good relationship also allows the joint, cooperative efforts of the union and the managers to encourage safe behaviour.
At another mill where the joint union-management safety committee comprised the same people as the grievance committee, safety meetings were very ineffective and the mill had almost the worst safety performance of the 29 mills in the province of BC. Some discussions with the union leaders lead to a change in their local rules, which allowed their safety committee representatives to be people who had a genuine interest in safety and were not part of the grievance committee. The management members of the safety committee were also replaced with people who had demonstrated a genuine interest in safety and who represented all departments.
After a short time this new committee became very productive. Meetings were short, with a clear agenda, and everyone left with clear goals, responsibilities and deadlines. Within two years, the mill achieved the goal of the safest mill in the province. Just before this level of safety performance was reached, the local government Workers’ Compensation Board officer attended a joint safety meeting. At the end of the meeting he complimented the committee on its work, and made the observation that during the meeting it was very difficult for him to distinguish the management members from the union representatives because they were clearly working towards the same ends, which was exactly the objective that the committee had been trying to achieve. Such cooperation clearly contributed to the excellent results.
I am convinced that responsible union leaders and responsible managers, although they have objectives that appear to be in conflict, can work together to create a successful organization in which all employees are treated fairly. I also believe that even one irresponsible manager or union leader can easily upset the union-management relationship and repairing that damage may be very difficult.
I recognize that this article covers a very small sample of the many facets of union-management relationships, but I hope it demonstrates that it is possible for both companies and the unions that represents the interests of their employees to share success.
Don Armstrong, P. Eng
Veleda Services Ltd
250-655-8267 (Pacific Time)
©Veleda Services Ltd