Simply put, the collective agreement is an employment contract. As you will remember from your employment law studies, any employment contract that is formed between two parties, must have an offer, acceptance, and consideration in order for that contract to be enforceable. In a unionized environment, each time the collective agreement is renewed through the legitimate process of collective bargaining, these principles of offer, acceptance, and consideration remain in play. Once the parties have agreed to the terms of renewal, they have a contract between them. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
The collective agreement is not a one sided ‘union’ contract that the employer can ignore. It is a contract between two parties. Nothing will harden and sour the relationship between an employer and a union more than the perception that the employer is ignoring the terms of a negotiated, settled, and accepted collective agreement.
Let’s look at this from a personal perspective. If I agree to sell my house to a buyer, we negotiate the sale of the house and everything that is agreed and committed through a signed contract. If that contract includes the agreement on my part to leave all of the window dressings in place, then I leave them in place! I don’t take them with me or destroy them – That is not what I agreed to do. If I do take them with me, I should expect a very unfavourable reaction from the other party because I have deliberately broken the contract between us. Actions are similar with collective agreement administration. If the employer agrees to something during the life of the agreed upon contract, and then breaks that agreement, the union is going to react in a negative way. This result should not be a surprise to anybody with the responsibility for administering a collective agreement.
Yet, it happens, as is discussed in the article, below.
It is easy to be an armchair critic and wonder why the employer, in this case, would have agreed to a commitment of no layoffs during the life of a collective agreement if they knew they could not afford it. We must remember that any contract negotiation is never straightforward and we have to live with the results.
What are the Human Resources lessons to take from all of this? Effective HR planning and preparation for realistic implementation of a collective agreement is critical! And, do not make promises you can not keep.
- What types of terms could have been negotiated into this collective agreement?
- What could the employer have done differently in order to lessen the impact on unionized employees?
- Identify three specific pieces of information that an HR practitioner could have included as part of collective bargaining preparation?
- What steps would you advise the union to follow in this case?