Why union-employer relationships are replete with tension
Original article by Howard Levitt published in the Financial Post on December 18.
I was recently conducting a labour campaign on behalf of an Ontario manufacturer. In response to the union’s letter to the employees, viciously slandering my client, I prepared a letter for my client to send in response.
I received the following from the union’s lawyer:
“Howard, I am not sure why you believe your client is entitled to a response. This is not an election campaign where two sides battle on equal ground for the support of the electorate. Our clients stand in a fundamentally different relationship to this group of workers. They are the Union’s members, they chose this Union as their exclusive bargaining agent, the Union has a fiduciary and statutory duty to represent them and keep them informed about the status of bargaining. Your client has a completely different relationship based on an economic exchange of labour for payment.
“There is no need on your client’s part to communicate its position about these matters except improper reasons aimed at interfering in the administration of the trade Union. The Union is their representative, not unlike a lawyer representing a client, in which case directing messaging directly to the client is generally seen as improper…”
Despite decades of experience dealing with organized labour, this still stunned me. It demonstrated a Marxist view of labour relations but, at the same time, one prevalent among many members of the union movement. It’s one prism through which to view the state of Canadian union-management relations and the contrasting conceptual framework between unions and management.
To put it at its simplest, the notion that the relationship between employer and employee is nothing more than a trade of wages for service is entirely alien to that of any employer, consultant and manager I have ever dealt with. It is also alien to the views of most Canadian employees. It is also entirely foreign to labour relations law in this country, a law that provides the employer with many, many legal duties to its employees, far more than any union’s.
The allegation that employers lack the same right to communicate to their employees as do their unions is almost equally foreign to most, as is the suggestion that an employer can only communicate with its employees through its trade union, analogizing that to an opposing party dealing through counsel. Even the lawyer’s use of the term “workers,” as opposed to “employees,” betrays a constructionist view of them as mere pawns in a larger game in which they have only secondary agency.
The analogy to lawyer and client posits employers and employees as opposing parties with an inherently inimical relationship, such that any potential communication from the employer must be shielded from employees by “legal counsel” in the form of the union. Does this lawyer, and the union represented, not understand that employers deal with their employees multiple times daily on a host of labour relations issues?
My view of the role of a union, similar to most employers, is that its only role is to grieve if the employer breaches the agreement or unjustly disciplines an employee. It has little role beyond that. When I am involved in bargaining collective agreements, I do my utmost to ensure that its role is restricted to that and nothing more. It is a common misapprehension that the damage unions do to employers is in the areas of wages and benefits. It is far more from the non-monetary aspects of a collective agreement that make the workplace less productive or flexible.
The view of this union, through its lawyer, is dramatically different. It is that the union is central to the workplace, that all labour relations issues involving employees must be interpreted through it and that the employer’s only relationship with its employees is that of paying wages and receiving labour in return, with all other workplace issues being dealt with by the union.
Is it any wonder that our public sector, where unions dominate, is so riddled with inefficiency and incompetence?
Consider the implications for the workplace of this union lawyer’s view. No loyalty to the employer. Presumably no pride in being part of an organization. All employer communications filtered through or entirely censured by the union. No flexibility in working relationship (since flexibility requires real communication).
Is it any wonder the ranks of private sector unionized employees in Canada has dropped so profoundly, largely because of union businesses going bankrupt or moving to other (non-union) jurisdictions?
Is it any wonder that our public sector, where unions dominate, is so riddled with inefficiency and incompetence? Indeed, is it any wonder that employees in the public sector are more alienated from their employers than in the private sector or that Canadian unionized employees have lower job satisfaction than non-union ones?