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Why Professional Unions Make Good Conflict Management Partners

“Professionals and unions just don’t mix. Unions stifle professionalism and are bad for business. They discourage creativity and take an antagonistic approach to conflict management in the workplace. Professionals should have nothing to do with unions.” These are common refrains from those who oppose the unionization of professionals.

But what analysis are these refrains based on? The Workplace Fairness Institute has yet to uncover anything more than ideology and rhetoric to support the notion that unions and professionals are incompatible. This Institute offers aid to organizations in need of conflict management strategies. Its service is based upon the theory presented in Workplaces That Work: A Guide to Conflict Management in Union and Non-Union Workplaces, (Toronto: Canada Law Book, 2006). This book introduces a diagnostic tool for measuring the performance of workplace conflict management systems. And using this tool, the book concludes that the collective bargaining relationship can be an effective means of resolving workplace conflict if both parties treat the relationship with respect. Moreover, professional unions are especially well suited to the role of workplace conflict management partner.

What is Conflict?

Conflict occurs when one party believes the other’s actions may threaten to harm his or her interests. There are a variety of sources of workplace conflict including interpersonal, organizational, change-related, and external factors. The most observable form of conflict is a dispute. Typical disputes come in the form of formal court cases, arguments, threats and counter threats etc. In a unionized workplace disputes often takes the form of a grievance. Often, however, conflict remains submerged and unresolved.

The Cost and Value of Conflict

Conflict has both upsides and downsides for a workplace. Workplace conflict, improperly managed, can have a tremendous cost on the health of any workplace. This has an effect on a company’s performance. Conflict wastes the time of managers, human resources professionals, labour representatives and employees themselves. It effects the quality of decisions that are made because people in conflict are less likely to share vital information and more likely to get into power struggles. Poorly managed conflict can result in the loss of valuable employees and the expense of hiring and retraining new ones. It can lead to costly restructuring and even sabotage, theft and property damage. In addition, poorly managed conflict effects the health of workplace participants causing increased stress levels, and increased usage of sick leave and disability claims. In the end, conflict can lead to compromised job satisfaction, poor motivation and lack of engagement among employees, and thus low human performance.

While conflict can come at great cost to any workplace, it can also have tremendous benefits when managed properly. Conflict can be used as a catalyst for healthy competition in workplaces that rely upon competition to promote excellence. Conflict can bring underlying workplace issues into the open so that they can be resolved. Conflict can promote a better understanding of differences. When brought to the surface it can dissipate anger and raise awareness of other peoples’ needs. It can also be used as a way of placing focus upon common goals. It can lead to increased team spirit. Properly managed conflict fosters healthy dialogue and can motivate people to raise issues and discuss new ideas. Conflict challenges existing inadequacies in the workplace and can lead to a reassessment of workplace structures. Thus while poorly managed conflict is destructive, properly managed conflict can lead to workplace renewal.

What is a workplace conflict management system?

Every workplace has a conflict management system. In a non-union workplace the system generally consists of managerial decision-making, organizational and government regulation, peer negotiation, and the exercise of the exit options – resignation or dismissal. Unionized workplaces rely primarily upon the grievance procedure to manage conflict. Many modern workplaces use a variety of other options to supplement their system (see image below).

What makes a good workplace conflict management system?

In Workplaces That Work, we have determined 21 measures of a conflict management system. These measures are categorized into 4 quotients: Justice, Efficiency, Engagement, and Resource as seen below.

The Justice Quotient gauges how well the system performs from a procedural justice perspective. It considers: access to the system, applicability of the system to all workplace conflicts, independence of the system from manipulation, how well protected and supported employees are when they use the system, how fair the procedures are, how adequate the enforcement mechanisms are, and how well it protects participants’ legal rights.

The Efficiency Quotient measures the smooth operation of the system. It considers how well the system uses interest-based, rights-based and power-based options, how well it supports self-help alternatives, how expensive the system is, how flexible it is, how timely the processes are, and how well the system educates participants.

The Engagement Quotient measures the level of participant involvement and buy-in to the system. Without engagement, the system will largely remain unused and participants will craft their own remedies. Engagement measures the extent to which the system encourages positive, voluntary participation in the system.

The Resource Quotient measures commitment to the system through investments in resources needed from development through to implementation. A system cannot be Just or Efficient without adequate resources. Proper investment shows the company is serious about conflict management thus increasing participant buy-in. The Resource Quotient measures the adequacy of human, financial and facilities resources devoted to the system, and the processes in place to enhance continuous improvement of the system.

How does a unionized workplace compare to a non-union workplace?

In Workplaces That Work, we have analyzed traditional non-union and union workplaces using the diagnostic tool described above. Without modifications, neither type of workplace fares well in this analysis. The non-union workplace has primary deficiencies in the Justice and Engagement Quotients. Too much unmodified employer power may lead to abuse of authority. It also marginalizes opportunities for fair and protected workplace participant feedback. This results in reduced engagement among workplace participants in the system.

The unionized workplace, without modification, also leaves much to be desired. Although the Justice Quotient is strong, the Engagement and Efficiency Quotients are often weak. It is difficult to engage an employer in a system that does not meet its interest in flexibility. In fact the most significant problem with an unmodified unionized workplace is the lack of flexibility inherent in the structure. The structure is built to house an adversarial rights-based system of conflict management.

The benefits of a unionized work environment are:

  • A relatively well developed system for conflict management.
  • Employee access to union resources and protections.
  • The ability to share the cost between employees and the employer.

The challenges of the unionized work environment are:

  • The adversarial nature of the process.
  • Suspicion over alternative methods of resolving disputes.
  • Lack of flexibility in a traditional union-management relationship.

Why professionals unions are good conflict management partners.

Ironically, those factors cited in support of the notion that unions and professionals are incompatible are actually the very reason why professional unions can make superlative conflict management partners. Professional unions are not generally as dogmatic in nature – tending more toward a problem-solving approach to conflict management. Thus it is easier to engage professional unions in creative modifications to the traditional grievance procedure.

Professionals are generally more open to options that provide flexibility for the employer and thus increase employer buy-in. Problem-solving teams, internal review panels, and mediation diversion are prominent features in many professional union collective agreements. Professionals are often more engaged in their workplace structure and governance than traditional union staff. And they are generally more concerned with the employer’s interest in seeing the company flourish. All of these proclivities make professionals good candidates for workplace partnership.

Therefore, unionization is an opportunity for professionals to give positive and constructive feedback to their employer. Unionization allows a collective effort to ensure consistent, flexible and fair conflict management in the workplace. It can be a powerful vehicle for professionals to enhance their careers, improve their voice in the company’s operation and promote the company’s effectiveness. Rather than stifle professionalism, unions can enhance the professional experience by allowing professionals to make positive contributions to their company without fear of reprisal. In short, professionals and unions do mix.


Blaine Donais

Blaine Donais B.A., LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), RPDR, C. Med., author of Workplaces That Work, published by Canada Law Book, has spent many years working with public and private sector professionals. He is President and Founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute, Conflict Management Solutions. He has represented professionals as a labour… MORE >

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