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Collaborative labour relations: Is this the new normal?

Pandemic brings new dynamics, discussions to union environments


The bargaining and negotiation processes that shape union-employer agreements have followed the trend of most organizational operations by moving into the area of remote and online spaces. (jekershner7/Getty Images)

The consistent disruptions of the pandemic have affected employers and employees alike, with the changes to all organizational levels resulting in a very different employer-union labour relationship.

This is perhaps most evident in areas such as negotiation processes and primary topics of discussion and concern.

The bargaining and negotiation processes that shape union-employer agreements have followed the trend of most organizational operations by moving into the area of remote and online spaces, though this has not been without its difficulties, according to Natalie Arruda, research associate at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

While Arruda did admit that online negotiations provided both parties with distinct benefits such as more flexibility, focus, and efficiency in the overall bargaining process, she also highlighted that there still remains “a strong desire on both sides to go back to in-person bargaining, because it allows negotiators to read the energy of the room and pick up on non-verbal cues.”

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The flexibility of virtual negotiations leads Arruda to believe that arbitration and mediation-based processes are likely to remain online following the pandemic, though the overall limitations presented by online environments means that “there is expectation that in-person bargaining will return post-pandemic with some digital adaptations.”

Physical and mental health takes the spotlight

The methods of the bargaining process have certainly changed, but the new needs of the workplace created by the pandemic means that the issues and topics that have been the focus of this process between employers and unions have shifted as well.

One of the new focuses of labour relations arising from the changes of the pandemic is mental health.

“Many unions have been proactively offering mental health supports to their members,” Arruda pointed out, while on the employer end, “initiatives include increases to employee and family assistance programs, adding therapists under the health practitioners’ benefit, and adding online health care resources.”

The viral nature of COVID-19 also means that “a bigger lens has been put on workplace health and safety.”

Arruda explained that, “While it has been a challenge to maintain operational stability, employers and unions have worked together rapidly and relatively seamlessly to come to solutions that maximize employee safety.”

Unions and employers working together toward the necessary solutions for a safe workplace has been a key part in not just current labour relations, but also in ensuring the survival of organizations, according to Katherine Poirier, partner at Borden Ladner Gervais in Montreal.

“The pandemic has really placed workplace health and safety as a central priority,” Poirier said. “More than ever over the past months, it could make or break an organization in a matter of days, as it could seriously impact its resources and production.”

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Towards collaborative labour relations

The co-operation between unions and employers when responding to the issues of the pandemic is a feature that Poirier believes that both sides of the labour divide should look to carry forward into the future of their workplaces, especially with a return to in-person bargaining and back-to-office discourses on the horizon.

“Employers, just like unions, should try to remain in this collaborative and flexible mindset, and keep the communication lines as open as they were in times of necessity,” Poirier said, believing that their relationship over the past year “should foster a sense of gratitude towards their past achievements and of maintaining this spirit of collaboration.”

One approach that Poirier recommended employers take to continue this sense of collaboration is in clear and open communication, specifically regarding the issues shaping the workplace that employees will be returning to as organizations move out of the pandemic.

“Organizations should advise their employees of their return-to-work plan as soon as possible, and, wherever the climate allows it, discuss it with the union beforehand to gather any concerns the employees may have,” Poirier said.

Jack Burton is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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