Employer/employee relationships in the nonprofit sector are become increasingly complex. The legislation governing employers and workplaces is constantly changing, and in recent years many nonprofits have been unionized. Employers want to be fiscally and operationally responsible, but they also want to be lawful and fair. In a unionized environment, it is essential that the relationship between employer and union work.
The following five ideas will help to preserve a sound working relationship with your union.
1. Know your collective agreement, including what works and what doesn’t. The agreement represents common ground between management and the union. In bargaining, proposals for change reflect places where that ground is shifting.
Workplaces do not stay the same: the services that they provide change, equipment and technology changes, clientele changes and needs of an organization change. Unions react to operational changes by relying on provisions in their collective agreement or on contract negotiations to influence and to impose limits on these management-imposed changes. The collective agreement is enforceable; it is binding in arbitration, and if necessary, through the courts. It represents a set of promises and expectations that both parties have committed themselves to honour; it is one of the foundations of a relationship of trust.
Managers need to know in detail what is in their organization’s collective agreement and to incorporate that knowledge into both day-to-day and longer term planning and administrative decision-making. It is also important to have an understanding of why certain provisions are in the agreement in order to prevent unexpected challenges, for example, to proposed organizational changes.
2. Prepare carefully for negotiations; don’t just react to union proposals. Assess how much change you can make in one round of negotiations. Work carefully on the language of your proposals. This may be the time to consult a professional. The new language will be binding; it is critical that the words say precisely and clearly what the parties intend.
The negotiation of a new agreement means that you prepare, prepare, and prepare! An employer’s negotiating team is in a tough position: it represents management but it must respond to and balance employee interest. Negotiations can become a world unto themselves: intense, time-consuming and lengthy. Preparation should start early and consider input from a variety of angles including consultation with financial, legal and operational staff. The employer bargaining team needs to understand in detail what is currently happening in the organization and what challenges are anticipated in the future. Management priorities need to be sorted out and then converted into proposals, which are organizationally sound. If bargaining takes an expected turn, the management team needs to be kept up-to-date and involved.
Bargaining involves more than simply reacting to union demands. An absence of employer proposals reflects an absence of management preparation and consultation. It is a loss of opportunity and credibility and the cost to an organization can be high.
3. Put yourself in the driver’s seat. Face tough management decisions responsibly. Don’t expect the union to make them for you. Follow a sound process. Act in a controlled and timely manner. Consult beforehand with those who should be involved. Take advantage of available resources. Consider the consequences. Have a communication strategy.
Many progressive organizations face constraints that limit their ability to provide compensation and benefits that they believe are fair and reasonable due to uncertain and inadequate funding arrangements. While one response might be to make provisions for severance arrangements in the hope that these will never have to be dealt with, a more responsible approach is to:
- Identify tough management decisions early on;
- Sort out what you can do and what you can’t;
- Involve those management staff who are accountable;
- Spend time beforehand planning how you are going to communicate together;
- Listen to feedback and figure out where you can be flexible.
4. Keep the channels of communication open. The union/management relationship does not allow for separation and divorce. When conflict arises and tensions mount, communication channels are the means to sustain a viable relationship. Listening is essential. Restraint is invaluable.
The employer and the union continue to be partners in the workplace after negotiations are complete and the relationship plays itself out through their communications. The second relationship to be considered is that between the employer bargaining team and the senior management team. In a negotiating environment, communication does break down unless people listen with the aim of understanding what is being said, unless they exercise self-restraint in the way they respond to one another and unless they are restrained in the way they represent their own issues and concerns.
5. The management/union relationship is professional, not personal. Mutual respect is fundamental; the need for it is constant.
The fundamental relationship between an organization and its union is a professional one; to preserve the mutual respect that the relationship demands, each party has to keep some distance between the issues in dispute, the people who are voicing them and the impetus to respond in a way that betrays too much feeling, as opposed to expressing thoughts and ideas. When frustration arises, it is more effective in the long run to remind oneself that these are professional matters, not personal ones. Good negotiators are exceptional in understanding and articulating this fundamental difference.
Good Resources on Managing Relations with your Union
Canadian Master Labour Guide, published annually by CCH
Ontario Labour and Employment Legislation, published annually by Canada Law Book
Ontario Ministry of Labour
Ontario Human Rights Commission
Canadian Labour Arbitration, by Brown and Betty 3rd edition, Canada Law Book Inc. 2003 (with periodic updates available as a service)
CLV Reports (Canada Labour Views Reports), newsletters reviewing Canadian wage settlements, cost of living increases, arbitrations and labour board decisions, published monthly by Carswell