Liza van Wyk
On strike: SA labour relations are characterised by adversity, when both employers and employees would benefit from a more equitable relationship.
For decades employers and employees, management and union leaders have struggled to break down adversarial relations and to establish perceptions of goodwill to ensure increased productivity and profitability with little or reduced labour strife.
No matter what they do, the partnership remains delicately balanced.
If we all agree that labour relations refer to the relations between employers and employees affected by several factors such as collective bargaining, government policy, the structure of the economy, labour law and technological changes, it is both interesting and worthwhile to examine why there is always a confrontational relationship when cordial labour relations are so important for economic prosperity.
Is it because in the political climate that has prevailed since the dark days of apartheid, unions still carry the tinge of communism and socialist association, or is it because public policy debates are often hamstrung by polarised conflicts between workers and management?
The truth is, employers have more to gain from a satisfied and well-trained workforce, and workers in a free-market global economy have more to lose when they go it alone.
One of the most important steps to end adversarial relationships is a well-understood communications plan that specifies responsibilities.
A labour relations communications plan must contain critical questions. The most important are: What? When? Where? How?
Unless these questions are answered specifically, the action plan will not be implemented properly Ė or it might not be implemented at all.
If unions and management do not have a scheduled, ongoing action plan to keep each other informed, relationships will be insular, secretive, and uncaring.
Both parties will feel alienated as they see each other maintaining and furthering adversarial relationships that ultimately take a toll on the bottom line.
In contrast, when management and employees talk and listen to each other and resolve problems together it increases trust. If employees and employers are to believe each other, there must be open and ongoing communication, both verbal and written, based upon a specific strategic action plan.
Unfortunately there is often no open-door policy in labour relations. Whenever the two are faced with a mediation or negotiations dilemma, management often suddenly decide itís time to talk with workers.
By then itís too late. At this point, workers naturally will suspect managementís motives and regard everything managers say with cynical disbelief.
So, itís essential that there is open and ongoing communication, not something that is initiated at the first threat of labour problems.
An ongoing strategic communications plan will demonstrate management and employeesí credibility; it will be built on a foundation of asking, listening, talking, and acting in response to each otherís needs and issues.
No one can sincerely ask, listen, and talk if they do not know anything about those with whom they are having a conversation.
Written communication can be helpful.
This could include newsletters, personal letters, public notices, and self-appraisals. Newsletters not only inform everyone of programmes and news, but give family members who read them favourable views of the company.
By not asking, not listening, not talking, not taking action, and not opening channels of communication, companies often feed the adversarial relationships that lead to unionisation and to slowdowns, walkouts, and strikes in companies where unions are already in place.
l Liza van Wyk is CEO of skills development training organisation AstroTech, a provider of Labour Relations and Labour Law Training.