At the beginning of June 2020, the ongoing labour dispute between Saskatchewan’s Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) and the union represented by Unifor 594 seemed destined to remain unresolved. The employer locked out the members of the bargaining unit on December 5, 2019, after the union voted to go on strike. The next six months resulted in a work shutdown, along with escalating and increasingly hostile labour relations tactics enacted by both sides as noted in this news article, posted on June 1, 2020. Almost three weeks after that, the stalemate appeared to be over with the announcement of a tentative deal being reached between the parties. How is it that this kind of resolution is possible in the midst of what seems to be an entrenched and especially hostile labour relations dispute?
The mechanism for resolution may be attributed to the use of government-appointed mediators, as mentioned in both the aforementioned news article and in this CBC news clip. While the mentions are brief, the impact of mediation in the form of neutral third-party intervention is profound. When parties are stuck in a labour dispute, they are tied up in a series of ‘nots,’ both figuratively and literally. They are not moving, not resolving, and not able to speak with each other in any way that is resolution focused. The longer the dispute continues, the more rigid both parties become as they tighten their hold on their respective immovable positions.
It is the role of the mediator to try to assist the parties in finding a way to become unstuck and loosen their hold on their respective ‘nots.’ The mediator, as a third-party neutral, often assists by creating an objective opening that enables the parties who are stuck to let go and try to approach some form of agreement. During the process of mediation, the disputing parties are still doing the work to reach a deal. The mediator simply assists the process in several ways. They may shepherd messages from room to room. They may caucus with party representatives to ensure that messages are delivered, heard, and listened to, without escalation and devolving into personal attacks. When emotions do run high, a successful mediator will know how to de-escalate and allow emotions to be expressed without inflicting residual harm onto the whole process.
While mediators are appointed by the applicable government as conflict resolution resources, they are perceived by both sides (labour and management) as being neutral. This YouTube clip, prepared by UFCW Local 401, provides a brief overview of the role and benefits of mediation approaches during the collective bargaining process.
Coming out of this particular labour dispute between the CRC and Unifor 594 will not be easy. The parties still have to ratify and accept the tentative agreement. Once that is completed, the next steps will require both workers and management to release themselves from several negative ‘nots.’ All parties will have to adjust from not being at work to being at work; from not trusting each other to trusting each other again; from not staying entrenched in past bitterness to being open to honest dialogue focused on resolutions for the future. Most importantly, the relationships that have been frayed through hostile actions against one another will need to be repaired with time and patience.
- If you were the mediator for the CRC and Unifor 594 labour dispute, how would you approach each party to look for possible solutions?
- Each province has designated and mandatory approaches for dispute resolution steps during the collective bargaining process. Based on information you can gather from government websites, outline the steps to be followed in your province.
- Do you agree or disagree that mediation should be a mandatory step for any parties locked in a labour dispute? Explain your rationale.