Rebuilding trust a key after heated labour disputes

Back-to-work graphic. Stock photo by Getty Images

Long, acrimonious disputes are a challenge, no doubt, but the road forward is not easy even after a conflict has been resolved.

That's the situation facing United Steelworkers (USW) and Crown Holdings with the end of a lengthy 22-month strike. The 130 affected employees — represented by USW Local 9176 — work at the company’s beer can manufacturing plant in Weston, Ont.

Union members went on strike in September 2013 after Crown called for a two-tier wage schedule. According to the union, the plan would have permanently cut young and new workers’ wages by as much as 42 per cent.

In the end, the collective agreement was reached with the assistance of the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) following nearly two years of tense labour action. During the dispute, USW filed a complaint of bad faith bargaining and unfair labour practices with the OLRB against the company.

The new six-year collective agreement guarantees the rights of all striking employees to return to their jobs, said USW. It also includes enhanced retirement and severance provisions for employees who decide not to return to the plant.

The return to work process is set to begin Aug. 10, said the union, but a Facebook page for USW 9176 is filled with angry comments from workers.

Moving forward

So, where do they go from here? Anne Grant, president of AEG Dispute Resolution Services and former president of the ADR Institute of Ontario, said employers and unions face a specific set of obstacles following a particularly long or acrimonious labour dispute.

“Post-dispute, you’re coming out of that conflict scenario and having to return to the day-to-day relationship, which doesn’t feel that easy,” she said.

Returning to regular operations can be difficult following a dispute because trust is often fractured or completely broken during labour action, said Grant.

“Relationships are built on trust, but we don’t always have the benefit or the luxury of personal trust in a working relationship."

It’s important, therefore, to establish processes in which both parties can establish trust following a dispute. Something as simple as establishing regular labour-management meetings, she said, can make a significant difference.

For maximum impact, however, Grant recommended implementing these processes preventatively.

“Rather than wait to see if there are bad feelings following a labour dispute, I think they need to be headed off at the pass,” she said. “A proactive and preventative approach has to happen first.”

Grant recommended giving managers the guidance, skills and support they need to create strategies for employees’ return to work. Working with the union on these processes and showing employees a united front, she said, will go a long way.

Seeking proper professional services and legal advice should be one of the employer's and the union’s first steps when addressing a labour dispute, according to Allen Craig, a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson in Toronto, who said bad behaviour during a dispute has consequences that reach far beyond bad feelings.

Mistrust can reach customers

The tenor of the next round of bargaining is often heavily informed by labour disputes, he said, as mistrust often develops between the parties, which can extend to a company’s customers.

“You have to immediately rebuild customer relations,” Craig said. “When there’s a strike, there’s uncertainty in the customer’s mind.”

This potential for a loss of business is often exacerbated by a lack of productivity among employees returning to work. “People are more interested in talking about what happened and sometimes it takes awhile to get operations back,” said Craig.

Following a long dispute, Grant said both the employer and the union need to be realistic about any damage done. Even with communication and collaboration, issues may linger in the aftermath of such a protracted dispute.

“Relationships really do need time and space to rebuild,” she said.

This is an edited version of the original article published in Canadian Labour Reporter
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