Peace not war in industrial relations

The Government wants less “combat and conflict” in industrial relations. That could lead it to helping fund an innovative approach being championed by some of New Zealand’s biggest companies. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Small businesses wanting to adopt a collaborative approach to workplace relations could have Government resources made available to do so.

Unions are hoping for a resurgence under the Labour-led Beehive, which has signalled it will strengthen collective bargaining and introduce sector-wide pay agreements as part of a shake-up of employment law.

But Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has indicated another tranche of work underway is a better signal of the future.

Speaking at the Employment Law Matters Annual Forum in Wellington, Lees-Galloway said he wanted to see the a new partnership approach adopted, one that brings employees into the decision-making process.

Called High Performance High Engagement, it centres around an idea that people closest to the problem, including workers and unions, are best placed to gather to brainstorm solutions.

The process has been adopted by Air New Zealand and KiwiRail, with Lees-Galloway telling the conference he has visited the latter company to see it in action.

“It’s a way of working that requires quite a bit of investment from the employer and it requires a different way of thinking from unions as well.

“It is a much more collaborative and engaged approach to industrial relations than perhaps the combat and conflict of the past but in my view, this is the future of industrial relations.”

Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway wants to see businesses and unions adopt a less combative form of industrial relations. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A High Performance High Engagement framework has also been developed by a group of district health boards and unions and distributed across the country.

Speaking to Newsroom after his address, Lees-Galloway said the approach had been a resounding success at Air NZ leading to less industrial action, better staff engagement and higher productivity.

“It’s more than just 'oh we’ll engage more with our workforce', it’s a very structured approach.”

But while large companies had the resources to hire consultants to develop the approach this was out of reach for smaller organisations, he said.

The Government is in the early stages of working out what it could do to help, with one possible solution being training and advice provided through the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

‘Learning to draw rather than war’

For Wayne Butson, the shift to High Performance High Engagement was a revelation.

As general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union Butson has been involved in negotiating with KiwiRail, which has not always been easy.

“It’s a no-brainer for me because I’ve always had great trust in the workers, no-one knows better how to do the job than the workers themselves."

But after the company adopted the process about three years ago, its “Dickensian” approach quickly disappeared, he said.

“I think it’s definitely useful. If you like it’s a form of social democracy.

“The union has to believe in the process and management has to give up some of that master-servant outlook.”

At first, some managers found this difficult while some workers were concerned about repercussions of voicing their opinions.

The union had insisted on an agreement that no compulsory redundancies would result from initiatives that came out of the process and since then productivity had “skyrocketed”.

The process did not always work, as illustrated with disagreement about the use of electric locomotives on the North Island trunk line, but there had been many successes such as the turnaround of the railway workshops in Lower Hutt.

“It’s a no-brainer for me because I’ve always had great trust in the workers, no-one knows better how to do the job than the workers themselves.

“For us as a union, it’s quite a turnaround. Beforehand KiwiRail and Air NZ had quite a chequered history in working with unions … if you look at both these companies they don’t appear in the litigation anymore. We’re learning to draw rather than war.”

Air NZ declined an interview request, but in a written statement spokesperson Kelly Kilgour agreed the High Performance High Engagement process had been a success.

Staff were given time away from their daily work to participate and Kilgour confirmed since its introduction there had been no industrial action and the relationship with unions had strengthened.

“It is not a set of tools or complicated processes, but a mindset where people across the airline should be thinking ‘is there a way I can involve people who will be affected by this issue to help develop the right solution?”

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