Peace on the Job
The first person I represented as a shop steward was Connie*, someone I had known for years in the workplace. A series of incidents had taken place in Connie’s office, culminating in all but one of her colleagues signing a petition against her—something I had never heard of happening. Connie had been called to a meeting with her manager and a staff relations rep and I was asked to be there as her advocate.
They wanted her to go on leave for a period of time and she was balking. It was obvious to me at the meeting that Connie was in some kind of crisis. As things began to deteriorate, I asked for two minutes and motioned for her to join me in the hallway. I advised her that it would likely not go well for her if she continued to resist and in all probability she would find herself being escorted from the building by the security staff. I suggested to her that that would not be ideal and she agreed. When we went back into the meeting, she told the manager and the HR rep that because I had explained things to her in a calm manner, she was prepared to do as they had asked.
So began a protracted and sometimes difficult first involvement as a union rep. In that very first case I had my feet to the fire many times. I sometimes felt as though I was part of the cast in a Shakespearean drama! In the end, Connie was transferred to another workplace and eventually retired.
This happened in an environment where, when managers were assigned to our area, it was said they were going to the Eastern Front. In other words, the employees knew their rights and were not afraid to exercise them, so were difficult to manage. The union was almost in its infancy in our workplace at that point, and we had all been involved in one way or another in writing the first contract. That meant that the culture had to change from one of top-down management to collaboration, mediation, give and take—and that was a hard nut to crack for many years.
In the time that followed that first case with Connie, through contract negotiations, through mediation, through grievance procedures, I learned a great deal about people on both sides of the table, including myself. Among other things, I learned that some emotions had to be left in the hallway if progress was going to be made, and of course one must almost always compromise if a workable solution is to be found.
Over the years, labour relations were strained and sometimes difficult, and the challenges were many. It was not until a new manager came on the scene that things began to improve—and they improved dramatically.
I developed a rapport with this manager—based on an intelligent exchange of ideas, a mutual respect, and, best of all, humour.
Together we resolved many issues before they resulted in grievances. Even during contract negotiations, we had countless “off the record” conversations that resulted in issues being resolved through back channels and then formalized at the bargaining table.
This is not to say that it was only the two of us who effected change; there were many others who contributed to making the workplace less antagonistic. I am forever grateful, though, to this particular manager for his generosity and open-mindedness.
The culture of the workplace gradually did change, and we achieved labour peace. The Eastern Front was once again a term of history.
By: Elizabeth Hogan
*Name has been changed