Canadian Plastics

Labor pains, unions gain

The desire of management at smaller-sized plastics companies to keep unions out of their plants is often misunderstood by the public, and unions themselves, to be simply a fear of having to pay unioni...

August 1, 1999   Canadian Plastics



The desire of management at smaller-sized plastics companies to keep unions out of their plants is often misunderstood by the public, and unions themselves, to be simply a fear of having to pay unionized employees higher wages and benefits. Yet, the far bigger concern of owners and managers is that unionization will result in significant loss of control of their operations.

If past practices of unions are any indication, such a fear is justified. While examples of constructive union-management relationships exist, unionized companies traditionally have shown a greater tendency to more layers of bureaucracy on the shop floor. This situation in turn can limit an operation’s speed and flexibility, while often creating a hostile barrier between management and employees.

Yet, the flip side to this story is that poor management practices are sometimes an open invitation for the union to come and party on the company doorstep.

Union organizing actions are, of course, legal in Canada, and so a union, or an application for union certification, does not necessarily imply that a company is being managed poorly. Still, it only stands to reason that employees in a company with a good worker-management relationship will be less likely to see the need for an organization outside the company to represent them. Frequent self-analysis on management’s behalf can help ensure this relationship is in good working order.

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One of the first things management has to ask itself is do company policies match company practices? There is perhaps a no more prickly seed of discontent among employees than policies that are not followed, understood or enforced by everyone. Is your late or absenteeism policy being enforced by some supervisors but not others? Are safety rules such as hearing protection, safety glasses and electrical lock out procedures being practiced by all staff? Are qualifications for job categories clearly stated and communicated?

Another seed of discontent in the modern, multi-cultural and egalitarian age in which we live is perceived favoritism or bias. In the dynamic complexity of the shop floor, such a perception can arise out of the slightest incident or most routine and overlooked work arrangements. Why does one ethnic group have “better” jobs than another ethnic group, receive preferential treatment, etc., etc? I have seen this situation literally tear a plant apart. Managers should do everything in their power to keep close tabs on shop floor morale and nip any perceived favoritism in the bud before it grows into something nasty.

Employee-management relations are also damaged by self-serving supervisors and management staff who say one thing and do another. One of the most noteworthy examples of this is a manager who publicly supports the company’s strategic objectives (lower scrap, for example) but actually practices protectionism of the employees who work under him or her. The net effect of this is often to initiate infighting among different plant departments, shifts or work cells as a “my side vs. your side” attitude spreads among employees.

The last, but certainly not least, of the factors which can erode good worker-management relations is (sorry, there’s no getting around this one) the wage issue. Indeed, cost control efforts, and their impact on wages, have been so successful that disposable income has fallen by about five percent in the 1990s. Managers may worry more about keeping control of their companies, but employees have grown more concerned about their falling real wages. And money, as in lack of, a wise man once noted, will make people do funny things. Things they might not otherwise consider doing.

I offer no easy solutions to any of the above conditions, only one hard one: think, communicate, act.

e-mail: mlegault@southam.ca


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