How to mobilize a union during difficult economic times
In this period of gradual resumption of activities amidst an ongoing pandemic, we are being asked to shift into “solution mode”. Life as we knew it has given way to a new reality that requires change and adaptation. Workplaces are no exception, as explored in our recent article, “Change management post-COVID-19”.
Faced with this new reality, employers would be well advised to shift into “solution mode”: to review their work processes and use of human resources and identify solutions adapted to the new challenges that lie ahead. This effort will be especially important in unionized workplaces, where union engagement is more likely than ever to be an integral part of the solution.
With the situation in constant flux, the solutions will require flexibility, mobility and adaptability by both employers and unions, which can be challenging when rules are well entrenched in a collective agreement. For instance, what will happen to long-standing practices or to working conditions that only came about after tough negotiations?
To reduce the risk of labour tension at this time, we suggest considering a few avenues.
The collective agreement: then and now, with COVID-19
Any discrepancy between the proposed solutions for the current context and the working conditions set out in the collective agreement could prompt discussion. An easing of, or an outright deviation from, the terms of the collective agreement might be needed in order to implement the required adaptations put forth by employers.
The adaptations could involve such aspects as flexible working hours, overtime, staff movement and work exclusivity. Consequently, prudent employers will want to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the text of the collective agreement before:
- Holding discussion sessions with the union;
- Making strategic decisions while also addressing legal issues;
- Drafting letters of understanding.
The union as ally in your communications strategy
The information given to employees is a critical factor in the implementation of the employer’s action plan. In times of crisis, the situation can change from one day to the next and sometimes decisions must be made quickly. It is essential that the employer formulates a strategy that focuses on providing relevant, accurate and verified information and that there is a channel within the organization to validate information. This will ensure that the message is both coherent and consistent.
A well-developed communication plan is essential to engaging employees in upcoming changes and adaptations. While the key messenger remains the employer, an organization would be well advised to pursue close cooperation with the union, particularly on health and safety issues.
As communications will play a major role going forward, employers must ensure that the content and method of these communications do not border on interference, as this could lead to complaints under the Labour Code.
Shifting into “solution mode” also means mobilizing the Labour Relations Committee (“LRC”). If LRC meetings were already a practice in your workplace, our view is that these meetings will likely be a good venue for engaging a union during the crisis.
At a time when many hearings before the Administrative Labour Tribunal or with grievance arbitrators have been cancelled, it may be best, in appropriate cases, to look for dispute resolutions/discussions.
A “blitz” of LRC meetings could be proposed to the union with a view to, among other things:
- Hold dispute resolution sessions for current disputes;
- Discuss health and safety issues;
- Obtain feedback on the action plan put in place by the organization;
- Discuss legal issues related to employee management.
During these meetings, participants must of course observe public and occupational health and safety guidelines.
Given the new reality and with businesses facing so many challenges, unions must also shift into “solution mode” in order to protect jobs. In the current economic circumstances, unions that are flexible, adaptable to solutions proposed by employers and willing to mobilize their members will contribute to the survival of many organizations.
The recent wave of denunciations by employees in the education sector illustrates that in this particular crisis, a union that appears disengaged and unwilling to cooperate with an employer’s action plan may find itself subject to criticism by unionized employees who want a solution-oriented approach. It is in a union’s interest to get involved and support the types of employer initiatives we have presented.
Do not hesitate to contact our Labour and Employment Law team for support or to answer any questions you may have.