Employers Hate Unions—Sure, but This Badly?!
Employers Hate Unions—Sure, but This Badly?!

Employers Hate Unions—Sure, but This Badly?!

June 1 st 2000

Everyone knows that most employers do not like or trust trade unions. But everyone does not know the extent and intensity of that dislike and distrust.

Over 94 per cent of employers actively oppose union certification applications, according to a recent national survey by Karen Bentham of the School of Industrial Relations at Queen's University. In Bentham's study, 88 per cent of responding employers tried to frustrate union access to employees; 68 per cent tried directly to talk employees out of unionizing; 29 per cent tightened work rules or monitored employees.

Three categories

Bentham received back 421 completed questionnaires from companies in a representative range of sectors and from all over Canada. Based on the actions they report having taken in response to a union certification application, Bentham classified employers in three categories: 1) acceptance, 2) challenge, and 3) obstruction.

The acceptance category includes employers who encouraged unionization as well as those who neutrally accepted unionization. In response to the union certification application, they report having hired a lawyer or consultant; trained managers to deal effectively with the organizing drive; or filed an objection to the proposed bargaining drive, regardless of its outcome. Slightly more than five per cent of the employers in the sample fell into this category.

The challenge category includes employers who may have taken any of the actions reported by the acceptance category but who also reported having frustrated union access to employees or communicated directly with employees in an effort to sway or influence employees. Such communication included downplaying the benefits of collective bargaining; emphasizing their willingness to accommodate changes in the absence of a union; or making coercive or threatening statements. More than 66 per cent of the employers in the sample fell into this category.

The obstruction category includes employers who were charged with unfair labour practices or admitted to activities that could reasonably be considered to have been unfair labour practices. They may have tightened work rules or monitored employees.

They used delaying tactics such as mounting multiple administrative challenges, requesting postponements, making objections, or appealing labour board decisions. Twenty-eight per cent of the employers in the sample fell into this category.

Active resistance

According to Lancaster House's Collective Agreement Reporter (March/April 2000), Bentham's study shows that "fully 94.5 per cent of employers in the sample actively resisted the unionization of their employees."

The Reporter comments, "This is an astounding figure given that, due to response bias, this sample under-represents employers whose resistance efforts were successful in defeating certification. Furthermore, sample data capture employers' admissions of actions and, given the sensitive nature of these admissions, may understate many forms of employer resistance, especially those actions which may be illegal or not publically sanctioned."

The findings of Bentham's study illustrate vividly the adversarial nature of labour relations in Canada. It is now beyond dispute that, given present circumstances, the vast majority of Canadian employers are implacably opposed to the unionization of their employees and to collective bargaining.

More than likely, union members and employees who would prefer collective bargaining but do not at present enjoy it return the acrimony of such employers. Such mutual dislike must sour the atmosphere in the workplace and erode the trust and team spirit necessary for effective work in any business.

Reforming adversarial culture

For both principled and pragmatic reasons, leaders in economic life should work to reform the adversarial culture in labour relations. It isn't good for anyone, and it doesn't help the bottom line.

Persistent workplace conflict leaches the meaning out of work. Work plays an increasingly important part in most of our lives. Many of us derive a significant part of our sense of personal identity from our work. The experience of work has long been recognized as able to foster the maturation of good character. For most of us, our workplace is one of the few places where we have significant social relationships.

As the Council on Civil Society wrote in its 1998 report, A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths, "while private firms in free market economies operate in part according to a calculus of rational self-interest, they are also pervaded by dense webs of moral ties and associations. Consequently, private firms in free societies are major custodians—and can themselves become major creators or destroyers—of social competence, ethical concern, and social trust."

Why is this so? According to the Council, "because work is intrinsically social. Work is bound up with self-interest, but it also typically points past itself, toward service, cooperation with others, and the common good."

While the web of relationships we enjoy in the workplace is dense, it is also fragile. This is not a touchy-feely issue. Taking care of workplace relationships isn't therapy. Work is intrinsically social, as the Council argues. If we don't take care of workplace relations, we allow both the goodness and the effectiveness of the work people do to decay.

And that decay affects the bottom line.

Adversarial labour relations waste time and cost money. Grievances. Arbitrations—at the moment lasting, on average, two-and-one-half days and costing each side as much as $3,000 per day. Work slow-downs. Wobbles. Strikes. Machines standing still, doing nothing. Everybody watching their bank balances and getting ulcers.

Leaders in government, those who make policy, and those who serve on labour boards can help to make subtle changes to the framework of law and practice that will reward cooperative labour relations and discourage adversarial labour relations.

Leaders in the trade union movement, who certainly must bear their share of the blame for the present mood and practice of adversarialism, can help by toning down the class war rhetoric, focusing more on worker representation and less on political activism, and learning how to do more "mutual gains"-oriented bargaining.

Constructive engagement

But very little will change in labour relations on the shopfloor if employers will not take a lead away from obstruction towards constructive engagement. And, since we are all used to the way things are, that's not going to be easy. It will take determination, skill, and time for management to turn an enterprise around from labour confrontation to labour cooperation. But it will be the right thing to do, and it will affect the bottom line positively. It is worth the investment.

Business leaders must do three things if we are to see labour relations reform on the shopfloor:

  1. The more than 94 per cent of business leaders who actively oppose union certification applications must decide to make the move from the challenge and obstruction categories to the acceptance category. Not a limp-wristed, fatalistic acceptance but an active, constructive engagement with the real issues that motivate efforts at unionization.

  2. Get to understand the real, legitimate interests and objectives involved. What does management say they want and why? What do the employees say they want and why? Which of these stated "wants" are actual, reasonable, and possible to address? A little effort to understand the issues goes a long way in moving the situation from intransigent conflict towards potential mutual accommodation.

  3. Make the effort to learn the key skills needed to succeed at less adversarial bargaining. A good place to start is to read one of the many books that introduce these skills, such as David Weiss's Beyond the Walls of Conflict: Mutual Gains Negotiating for Unions and Management (Irwin, 1996).

Let us see business leaders lead the way, away from sheer self-interest and adversarialism, towards service, cooperation, and the common good. Let us see the managers of private firms in our free society act as what they are, according to the Council on Civil Society: major custodians, major creators of social competence, ethical concern, and trust.

Ninety-four per cent is just too much.

Gideon Strauss
Gideon Strauss

Gideon Strauss was the editor of Comment from 2000 to 2010. He is currently Associate Professor of Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school of philosophy in Toronto, and a senior fellow with the Center for Public Justice in Washington DC. Gideon also facilitates vocational discipleship in churches in his native South Africa.


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