Joint union-management training is unusual in North America, and it’s not hard to figure out why. On the continuum of union-management relations—from confrontation through armed truce, working harmony, and cooperation—a great many relationships sit on the cantankerous side. And for the few joint training programs that sprout as promising shoots, many are soon cut down because union members perceive that their leadership is too cozy with management and not looking after worker interests.

On the other hand, the benefits of jointly training managers and shop stewards are tantalizing. The promise lies in increasing boundary-spanning knowledge, reducing the friction that can lead to high grievance costs or work stoppages, and finding shared ways of meeting change head on.

Here’s what union members and managers at ENMAX Power Corporation, based in Calgary, Alberta, learned from their experience with joint training:

Find ways to build trust
You don’t have to have perfect labour relations, but you do require mutual respect.

Respect boundaries
Joint training is an extreme “relationship management” challenge. Each side has to be aware and respectful of boundaries, particularly the other side’s boundaries. That means giving your union or management partner room to manage their own stakeholders.

Stay true to the process of authentic collaboration
Don’t pay lip service—put yourselves in the shoes of the participants and consider their needs. Good ideas need to win out, regardless of who came up with them. Don’t keep score.

Be open and honest
One ENMAX manager explains: “We’re honest about what we do. On day one we talk about the continuum of labour relations and where we are on the spectrum. We peg ourselves mid-way and say we probably don’t want to be harmonious. We have a strong union and strong management and through creativity and open and honest dialogue we can come up with better solutions. So we have to be realistic around where you are.”

Bring energy to the room
Adult learners do best in a safe and engaging environment. Simulated negotiations offer excellent insights that stick.

Build the business case
What’s the cost of the status quo versus moving to a mutual gains perspective? You can spend money on lawyers or spend money on training your people in open communications. At ENMAX, the operational practices committee last year, working with the union, found more than $1 million in efficiencies.

Read the article I wrote for Queen’s University IRC on joint union-management training at ENMAX Power Corporation


photo by: Sam Howzit

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