Premier has alternatives to high-handed approach that could bring court case

My grandmother used to tell me something Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister might need to hear: "You can get more with honey than with lemons."

Legal route government is forcing labour to take will be very expensive for all parties, mediator writes

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister could find his adversarial approach to labour relations costly, Alan Levy writes. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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My grandmother used to tell me something Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister might need to hear: "You can get more with honey than with lemons."

There is no need to do things in a high-handed fashion. Clearly, our premier and ministers do not understand this. There are options the Progressive Conservative government may not have taken into consideration when it introduced legislation that imposes wage freezes on public sector and health-care workers.

The first is, let's check our ideology at the door. Ideology only clouds the objectives in negotiations done in good faith. 

There is no point in being adversarial. When it comes to freezing wages, it may well be difficult to be successful if the public sector unions go to court. The courts will likely delay the law from being implemented through an injunction ordering the government not to proceed. The legal route government is forcing labour to take also will be very expensive for all parties involved and most importantly, will likely fetter the government's ability to obtain the savings they believe are necessary.

Another option would be a transparent, co-operative path. The government could let labour know how much money they must save through labour and give labour all the necessary financial information. 

The government would then say two things: first, you can go away and come back with how you have figured out how to save the pot of money needed.

Second, the government could offer a negotiations approach with all public sector unions. This could be called a social contract project, where depending on the savings needed, employees would take a certain number of days off without pay to ensure no layoffs, thereby obtaining the savings while bargaining over economic issues continues as normal.

Charter protects collective bargaining

This process respects the collective bargaining process that is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  

This shares the pain among all public sector employees, obtaining savings with no one being laid off. Meanwhile, the government is assured of getting its savings without the upset of a legal battle. All parties in this difficult situation get the best deal they can in a co-operative, participatory fashion.

What are the cost benefits of moving in the direction the premier is steering this public savings boat? Is this in a direction that causes the least harm to as many Manitoba families as possible?

Under the current direction, not only will the premier fail to get the boat to its destination, but the boat might sink, causing negative political fallout by creating such an adversarial approach toward Manitobans. Then all parties will lose and such approaches will escalate conflict to the maximum and create a "them versus us" society. 

The Tories must do something that is done in business every day: engage in a problem-solving process that meets the needs of the business and its customers to the maximum benefit of all concerned.

The Progressive Conservatives must represent all Manitobans effectively. The Tories must do something that is done in business every day: engage in a problem-solving process that meets the needs of the business and its customers to the maximum benefit of all concerned.

Any wise businessperson knows that the path of least resistance should always be Plan A. In this case, some form of dialogue is needed to find ways to best respect Manitobans' interests, by ensuring a path of collaboration is tried first in good faith by all the parties involved, to successfully obtain the needed government savings.

There is no need to use a cannonball to kill an ant. Muscles can be flexed if dialogue is not successful. Pushing the hand of labour so unions have no choice other than the legal path is not in anyone's best interest. 

The very old-fashioned, traditional approach the province is taking will alienate all the parties involved. This is something no political party can afford if its members wish to get re-elected. It is in the government's best interest to operate within a co-operative process.

For a successful collaborative approach, all parties have to act respectfully toward one another. The message is we are not out to hurt anyone, but an understanding of each other's needs is essential. Meaningful dialogue includes respect and empathy for all parties involved, and ensuring social solidarity in all sectors of Manitoba society, rather than attempting to dictate and escalate conflict. The government's current strategy could result in it not necessarily achieving the needed savings.

Wants versus needs

There is a difference between wants and needs. Distinguishing between the two, by all parties concerned in any negotiation process, is a must for success. In this process we are only dealing with the parties' needs, so the parties need to do their homework to be able to explain what are their wants versus their needs. 

Rules should guide the interaction of the parties — an agreement to come up with X amount of savings as prescribed by the province. A reference agenda document, which would spell out the negotiation process for each labour sector, would be negotiated by government and labour.

Where the parties hit a wall of disagreement, mediators can be brought into the process to find common ground where the parties could not during their discussions.

This is a difficult process. Democratic decision-making processes can be messy. But research shows when this model is used correctly, the parties have a lasting, acceptable agreement. As well, they created it together — they are not fighting in the courts about who is right or wrong. The union-management relationship is not harmed and is often greatly improved.

Both parties believe a negotiated agreement will be better than one party's best alternative or a settlement with no agreement, and they know they can only reach that agreement by working together. It is the best cost-benefit decision the parties can make.

I do not believe the provincial government will turn over a new leaf and suddenly adopt a mutual gains approach to obtaining savings from labour. But should the government want a better way, there is one out there. It makes no sense for the government to mandate what it wants when the courts have the authority to overrule the Progressive Conservatives, because their approach disturbs the collective bargaining system, thereby breaching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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About the Author

Alan Levy

Opinion writer

Alan Levy is an associate professor on leave from Brandon University. He is also a mediator and arbitrator who works across Canada. He has a master of laws degree specializing in alternative dispute resolution.