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Collective Bargaining Proves Its Worth

I’ve often been heard to say that, in many ways, trade unions are no longer relevant. One area, however, where unions can still earn their keep is in the process of collective bargaining.
In times gone by, unions provided much-needed representation to workers on issues such as workplace safety, employment standards (wages, hours of work, etc.), and human rights. They stood up for workers at a time when workers were powerless to represent their own interest.
Over a span of many decades, much of unions’ historical role was usurped by governments, provincial and federal. All jurisdictions in Canada now have well-established workers compensation, employment standards, and human rights legislation. In each instance, there is also an administrative body entrusted with the task of ensuring employers’ compliance.
In B.C., for instance, the Workers Compensation Act, Employment Standards Act, and Human Rights Code occupy this territory. Even the relationship between unions and employers is now thoroughly regulated by statute (in B.C.’s case by the Labour Relations Code).
Now, even the most ardent proponent of management’s point of view would have to acknowledge that union activism may have been the most important factor in those legislative developments. But, in doing so, unions may well have paved the way to their own irrelevance. 
So, what’s left for unions to do?    Aside from advancing the occasional grievance, the trade union’s primary role today is to negotiate a collective agreement every three or four years.
The process by which unions advance the interests of their members is collective bargaining. Particularly when management and employees have different views on large- scale issues of critical importance to each, the collective bargaining process proves its worth time and time again. 
The magic of the collective bargaining process is that it takes parties with (sometimes) totally opposed positions and forces them to reach a mutually acceptable resolution. The process can be lengthy and painful and often both parties walk away dissatisfied but the fact that they are able to move ahead is the payoff.
The real secret of collective bargaining is that it forces deadlocked participants to move away from a “can’t” stance and consider the “what if?” of the situation. Confronted with an opposing force which possesses the ultimate weapon of a work stoppage, sooner or later each side has to contemplate a compromise.
It’s not all that difficult, really. But negotiating teams are made up of humans burdened with predetermined objectives (of varying degrees of reasonableness), emotions, stubbornness, and pride. Once they get past all that, however, possibilities which were initially unthinkable become not only thinkable, but real.
This province has seen many labour disputes lead to lengthy work stoppages. One such instance played out here in Kelowna over the last few months. Eventually it was resolved, as in just about every other case, because the parties accepted that the only way to move ahead was to attain a result which each could live with.
That may not mean that collective bargaining is a perfect process. But, until something better comes along, it’s the best process we’ve got.
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to