Build Trust Between Management and Union

When you treat people badly, it’s easy to make enemies. In some union-management relationships, both sides can engage in behaviour that makes effective workplace relations, positive bargaining outcomes and co-operation almost impossible.

According to Horace Armoogum, “what’s missing when I talk to both groups is that they lack trust between management and the union.”

Armoogum, manager at Port Moody-based Petro-Canada Burrard Products Terminal a processing operation for finished petroleum products, works effectively with two unions – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers’ Union (CEP) and the Teamsters, in his own shop. He is also a frequent speaker about psychologically healthy workplaces.

He says people must shift their focus from concentrating almost exclusively on negotiating strategy and bargaining to what happens daily in the workplace.

“Success at the bargaining table is about what you do 365 days a year. If you have a workplace culture where people are treated properly, with respect, you’ll have healthier management-union relationships”, said Armoogum in a recent interview.

However, this may be easier said than done.

First, the history of union-management relationships has traditionally been adversarial and lacking in trust. Armoogum says this is due to poor management practices that sometimes exploit and humiliate workers.

“Micromanagement, command and control leadership styles, ‘do as I say, not as I do‘ value systems and not treating people with the respect they are due creates hostile workplace relationships.”

Secondly, there is often a lack of leadership on both sides, with too much importance placed on title and position rather than the creation of trust, which requires doing what you say, being consistent and following through on commitments.

To increase trust between management and unions, Armoogum suggests management look closely at the ways they treat staff and that both groups adopt a new way of relating that focuses on mutual gains.

Improve Management Practices Armoogum suggests leaders formulate a vision for their organization and articulate it clearly. He recommends that employees help craft how the vision will be brought to fruition and that the vision include increasing staff commitment.

Toxic management practices breed compliance or “spiteful obedience” where people do what they can get away with, or refrain from giving that extra bit. “Management is key here; we can buy people’s hands and their backs, but we can’t buy their heads and hearts, so management must create a culture that brings out staff commitment”, said Armoogum.

This means leaders need to lead by example. Armoogum cited an example from his own workplace of ensuring that trucks back into parking spaces for safety reasons. He started doing it himself and told the supervisors why he was parking that way. Soon, everyone was following suit. Another example, swearing in meetings, was reduced when management stopped using foul language to express themselves.

It may seem like a small point, but Armoogum noted that management is responsible for promoting respect and dignity which can easily come down to the kind of language being used on the job. Zero tolerance for harassment, racism, sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour are management ‘must do’s’, according to Armoogum. And starting with the small things is important.

Focus On Mutual Gains This means building on common ground instead of differences between management and union. In a business context, Armoogum points out that both groups have common interests, including the success, viability and growth of the business. The union benefits from business success because a profitable enterprise creates more job security, higher compensation and hires more union members. When management cuts too close to the bone, downsizes and fills two positions with one worker or reduces costs at worker expense, the business may flounder. Recognizing that a successful business is built on the commitment of employees and sound management practices is in everyone’s interest, Armoogum notes.

Adopting a mutual gains philosophy requires helping each party save face. Too many times union or management ends up feeling humiliated and backed into a corner. This can originate from ‘win-lose’ thinking that seeks easy gains at the other’s expense. Being sure to look at the long term ramifications of expedient behaviour can prevent either party from engaging in actions that erode trust.

For example, at the bargaining table, where it is exceptionally easy for relations to deteriorate, Armoogum advises that neither party take advantage of the other. If either group is jeopardizing their position, rather than ‘going for the jugular’, it is best to avoid exploiting an obvious weakness. “Sooner or later, someone will notice that they’ve been taken advantage of at the table and that will poison the relationship on a day-to-day basis”, observed Armoogum.

Focusing daily on mutual gains in the workplace leads to looking for solutions that suit everyone. It means engaging in compromise, and thinking long term for both parties.

Ultimately, a concentration on mutual gains and ethically sound management practices takes the interests of employees and the business into account. “You don’t have to be rude, obnoxious or treat people badly to be successful and being respectful impacts the bottom line and is the right thing to do”, says Armoogum.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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