Spreading the News

June 1 st 1994

Word is beginning to spread that there are indeed other ways for labour and management to relate to each other besides the us-versus-them adversarialism that has dominated for so long. Labour-Management Innovations in Canada, a recent publication by Human Resources Development Canada, is the federal government's attempt to promote constructive alternatives in labour relations.

The government has come to the conclusion that adversarialism is not the ideal method of practising labour relations, if Canadian companies are to compete globally. This book, which consists of 24 "snapshots" of labour-management initiatives, was produced to provide examples of innovative relations in the workplace and to stimulate similar experiments in other workplaces.

Besides profiling individual companies' initiatives and their effects on productivity, safety, employee morale, and other issues, Labour-Management Innovations provides some observations on the impact of workplace innovations on the economy. While definitive conclusions cannot yet be drawn, mainly because benefits have not withstood the test of time, the book highlights a number of positive outcomes, especially in the following areas:

  • product/service quality (customer satisfaction, reductions in rework/scrap/ repairs);

  • productivity (volume of production per employee);

  • costs (unit production costs);

  • human resources (lost-time accident frequency and severity, absenteeism);

  • labour-management relations (grievances, arbitrations, information sharing).

The authors also suggest that the best results are obtained when changes are made jointly between labour and management with trade union involvement The latter is important so that workers have a united voice that cannot be unilaterally dismissed by management.

Other key principles, as defined in the book, that should be adhered to when implementing workplace innovations include:

  • Labour and management must see each other as equals, including especially the acceptance by management of the union;

  • Innovations must not be viewed as a quick fix but rather should form a comprehensive part of the corporate culture;

  • Both sides must maintain realistic expectations and engage in ongoing and meaningful communication about decisions to allay fears and gain broader acceptance of changes;

  • Initiatives must not become a substitute for the collective bargaining process.

It speaks for itself that all efforts to move labour-management relations away from the old adversarialism need to be welcomed. Such innovations, as described in this book, represent an important step forward in basing labour relations on a new attitude of mutual trust and respect and on the recognition that a successful business enterprise requires the best efforts of management and workers. At the same time, we should also note the weakness of the new cooperative approach, insofar as it is based on pragmatic considerations of self-interest and expediency. Not that these are always wrong per se, but by themselves they form a weak basis, especially when difficulties arise. When this happens, there is a need for a stronger bond than "What's in it for me?" to keep the relationship going. Wholesome human relations, also in the workplace, need to be grounded in the abiding standards of human behaviour that goes beyond mere self interest.

 

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.

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