As a result of the pandemic, the workplace has been turned on its head. During the pandemic there were closures and, where possible, people worked from home. Others, providing essential services, had to go to work and risked infection and experienced heavy stress because of staff shortages caused by illness. Health and safety became very important to staff during this time.
Just as the COVID restraints were being relaxed and the economy was starting to recover, inflation hit and affordability has become a much more significant issue. Now, many people can’t afford to buy groceries, and housing and rent costs have skyrocketed. Food Banks have reported a significant increase in use by employed people.
Amid this societal turmoil, significant collective agreements in Canada needed to be renewed. Negotiations proved to be difficult, and a strike occurred with federal employees before a settlement was reached. The impact of that strike and the subsequent settlement is having a huge impact on the public sector and broader public sector labour negotiations.
Union and contract negotiations are complex in the best of times. In this post-pandemic world, negotiations are proving to be even more complex due to inflation and other economic factors, flexible work arrangements, and working conditions around topics like paid sick leave.
In my many years of negotiating collective agreements, I always believed that preparation was the most important factor in negotiating an agreement that was fair and agreeable to both sides.
Here are four areas that require in-depth preparation so you can be ready for your next contract negotiations.
1. Research Current Issues
• Research and analyze what is going on in society in general and to the applicable industry and what issues are likely to be raised at the bargaining table. Specifically, find out what current wage settlements are and have been. Also, look for increases that are trending, such as signing bonuses, performance pay, or retention bonuses. Research current benefit settlements as well. Are there any new benefits like paid sick leave, mental health leave, and perhaps changes to the pension plan that you should be aware of?
• Research working conditions, such as hours of work, work-from-home and possible hybrid plans. Labour laws are changing quickly. Employment status, such as the definition of independent contractor, can impact costs and collective agreements. Be sure to research best practices on diversity and harassment so that collective agreement language, policies and processes can be improved.
• Identify internal issues that arose during the current agreement. Review the grievances that were filed and issues that were raised at union/management meetings. Doing so will help you identify areas that the union will be looking to resolve at the table.
• Discuss with all levels of management operational issues that have arisen because of the pandemic and determine what changes need to be made to the current collective agreement.
2. Create Solutions to Current Issues
• Create proposals to solve the identified issues to be tabled at the bargaining table. The chances that these proposals will be accepted by the union unchanged are low. Develop alternative solutions to be costed and presented at the appropriate time during negotiations. In my experience, I found it helpful to put solutions into three categories: preferred, acceptable, and need to avoid or end a strike.
• All proposals/solutions must be costed both in terms of dollars and in terms of the impact on time and efficiencies to the organization. Also consider the impact a proposal will have on clients, the company’s reputation, and to the relationship with employees and the union.
• Give thought to the timing of when and how to introduce a new proposal and if it has a good chance of being accepted. Pay attention to the mood and atmosphere and consider whether the union is ready for the proposal, because once a proposal is rejected it becomes damaged goods and it can only be reintroduced with improvements. Do not waste a good solution.
3. Get a Mandate
• Before going into negotiations, give a full presentation to the CEO and governing body, explaining the realities of the market and the post-COVID workplace. Obtain a mandate on the issues and the approach to take. Also explain how the negotiations will impact the future relationship between the union and management and the morale of staff.
4. Set the tone
• Determine the approach and the mood to be created at the table. Base it on what is needed to achieve an agreement that retains a positive relationship between employees and their union. My preference was to create trust by being open and accurate with the sharing of data – even if it hurts or is embarrassing – and share it willingly. If the union suspects relevant information isn’t being shared, trust is negatively impacted and arriving at an agreement will become more difficult.
I recognize that following the above four directions requires a significant amount of time and work. However, by being fully prepared for labour negotiations you are much more likely to arrive at a collective agreement that is fair and agreeable to all. Remember that a bad collective agreement can negatively impact the organization for a very long time.