Getting along with the union
Armstrong Canada typifies increasingly cooperative labour management relations

Five years ago, Armstrong World Industries' Canadian division was a textbook case of troubled labour-management relations. The company was in the midst of shutting down one of its production lines and its Descarie Blvd. plant was beset by grievances, work slowdowns and even sabotage.

Today the situation is reversed. The company is reinvesting and employees are singing its praises, bending over backwards to provide management the flexibility to run operations.

"Things have really turned around," said Mark Beauparlant, Armstrong's Canadian division's human resources and organizational effectiveness manager. "When I first started here, labour regulations prevented us from doing a lot of things, like moving employees from one job to another. Today we have a lot more flexibility."

Beauparlant joined Armstrong in the midst of its worst labour troubles, and oversaw the transition to better cooperation with the union. And by talking to production line workers, you get the feeling he's done a pretty good job.

"We get along really well with management," said Kenny Ross, an inspector on Armstrong's commercial tile production line. "They're always ready to listen to us when we have suggestions and working conditions here are excellent."

The catalyst for the turnaround in labour management relations came during a 1996 plunge in floor tile demand. This put the jobs of the 31 employees on the weekend production team at risk, most of whom had been at Armstrong more than ten years.

But while weekend shift workers' jobs were in jeopardy, weekday workers with more seniority were logging overtime. This unusual situation occurred because under the old labour agreement, the company could only use weekend workers when regular weekday workers had refused overtime.

In order to save the weekend jobs, management and the union worked out a work-sharing compromise. Weekend workers would make up their lost shifts by filling in when weekday workers called in sick or went on vacation. These shifts had been previously filled by overtime work by older employees.

The resulting agreement inaugurated a new spirit of compromise at the Canadian operation. In the following years the company has instituted a gain sharing plan which according to Beauparlant has provided workers an addition $6,000 each over the last two years.

This comes on top of already impressive set of working conditions. Armstrong's 172 unionized workers are paid between $18 to $19 an hour, they have access to a defined benefit pension plan and comprehensive group insurance. Not bad for what is mostly blue-collar semi-skilled work.

As a result of the impressive compensation package and the more positive work environment, stoppages and sabotage have all but ended, and annual grievances have dropped from about 35, five years ago, to three or four today.

The cooperation at Armstrong is typical of many Canadian union shops where management and labour are getting along better than ever before. Nasty conflicts like those at Videotron are now the exception rather than the rule.

According to Statistics Canada, work stoppages and workdays lost due to labour disputes are on a two-decade long downtrend. Strikes and lockouts fell from 1,028 in 1980 to just 377 in 2000. During the same period the number of workdays lost in disputes fell from 953 per 1,000 employees to 133.

This greater cooperation is partly a result of the realization by both workers and management that they have no choice but to get along. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the heyday of organized labour, unions held hundreds of businesses hostage by milking them for every cent they could get in negotiations, forcing many companies out of the country or into bankruptcy.

As a result union membership declined throughout the ensuing two decades. Today unions exist for the most part only in organizations that can't relocate operations such as governments, monopolies, natural resource businesses and those tied to geographic markets.

These businesses, --especially those in provinces with strong anti-replacement worker legislation -- recognize that working with a union puts them in a position of substantial weakness, because they are dealing with a monopoly of labour supply.

But according to Richard Godin, president of Local 8516 of the Syndicat des Métallos, unionized workers are also recognizing the increasing tenuousness of their privileged positions.

"With globalization, we are competing with workers in Mexico and South America," said Godin. "Fortunately the cheap dollar has been helping, and for the Americans, Canadian workers are now sometimes considered their form of cheap labour."

The new realization of the interdependence of workers and management is the key factor fostering the current cooperation.

For example according to Beauparlant, the company produces the best-valued tiling products in the industry. It's half-dozen plants account for about 60 per cent of the North American floor tile market.

But "(Armstrong World Industries (Canada)'s) major competition is not from other tiling companies," said Beauparlant. "It's from the other Armstrong plants that will take business away from us if we become inefficient."

Fortunately that hasn't happened so far. In fact quite the contrary, the Canadian plant was so efficient that production was expanded earlier this year and 30 new jobs were added. And public interest in those new positions was so high, that during one bout of hiring more than 1,000 people applied for the eight positions available.

 

Photo caption: According to Kenny Ross, an inspector on Armstrong's commercial tile production line, the company has maintained good labour relations by listening to employees.

 

Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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