Whether they realize it or not, many employers (and labour lawyers) think about labour relations from a reactive perspective. Labour board proceedings, grievance arbitrations, collective bargaining… More often than not, employers find themselves responding to demands made by their unions, and usually within time constraints. Over time, this can lead to a defensive labour relations strategy.
In light of this, it’s worth considering the benefits of a proactive labour relations strategy, what such a strategy looks like, and when it can be helpful.
One example is the strategy taken by the City of Toronto in its most recent round of collective bargaining. As The Globe and Mail described earlier this week, these negotiations had high stakes, and a prolonged and widespread work stoppage was considered to be almost a certainty. Ultimately, however, a major work stoppage did not occur. Moreover, many believe that bargaining concluded in the City’s favour. So, what happened?
The fact that the City adopted a proactive strategy that drove the bargaining process was central to the outcome in this situation. The specific factors underlying the City’s approach are described in some detail in the article. It is worth reading. Here are some key lessons that can be drawn from it for employers heading into bargaining:
- Start the planning process early. Develop a bargaining mandate, define your goals, and determine your priorities. This last point is critical. It’s always helpful to stay focused on the few issues that are truly important, and to understand what you can walk away from.
- Assemble an experienced and diverse bargaining team. The team should include (or have easy access to) principal decision makers, representatives from the operational and human resources side of the organization, and legal advisors.
- Plan for contingencies. Always consider how you will deal with a strike, lockout, or other disruption. Try to put a plan and concrete measures in place in advance to cope with possible problems that may arise.
- Develop a communications strategy. Bargaining is increasingly being conducted in the public eye, and it’s critical to decide in advance how you will frame negotiations to the media, the public, and your employees.
- Ensure that everyone on your team is on the same page, and work to maintain unity during the entire bargaining process. Divisions amongst the management team can be fatal to a negotiation.
These points may seem self-evident, but the daily grind of labour relations often pushes them to the back burner. Things to consider before your next round of collective bargaining.