Contract time adds pressure

Our son Maynard lives in greater Vancouver. He works at the University of British Columbia (UBC) situated on the far-west coast. It’s a large research university that serves about 52,000 students. He and two other labour relations specialists represent the administration, who oversee the close to 10,000 or so staff (not including faculty) at the university.

There are about a half a dozen unions representing the various groups of staff employees. The three labour specialists advise the various university officers on how best to manage complex staff issues, as well as how to handle employee disputes or complaints.

In order to be able to do that they have to keep up-to-date with labour and employment laws, decisions and practices, and collect all the information that each situation brings to the fore. This part of their job takes up most of their time. A big university has lots of critical situations going on at the same time, and there is not a day that the problem bucket is empty.

A time of pressure
But from time to time there is a bigger issue that needs their attention. I am talking about the recurring focus on contract renewal. At regular intervals labour contracts have to be renegotiated with each union, preferably before the former contract expires. However, it often happens that contract talks extend beyond the deadline for renewal. At such times, the eventual changes to the contract, usually improvements or adjustments to the wage scales, are applied retroactively.

Each part of our son’s work has its own challenges. Public Sector Contract time is often pressure time. But once settlements have been reached and the documents have been written up and signed by both parties, there is a strong sense of relief and the less-pressured task of managing the collective agreements and advising the university’s officers that manage the staff in these bargaining units can take over again.

A time of few boundaries
Our son was not always engaged in the slightly protective work environment offered by a university. Before he took up his task as a labour relations representative for the employer, he was a union employee representative for 13 years. In fact, he worked as a representative for the Christian Labour Association (CLAC), first in Ontario and after that in British Columbia.

He loved the challenges of work-related issues, building relationships and finding creative and meaningful resolutions, but there is something about union work that often interferes with personal life style. He needed to schedule meetings with stewards and management union representatives at times other than regular business hours. Often it meant he was busy in the evenings or on weekends, when employees could meet with him. That kind of work schedule is not suitable for a young person who wants to enjoy social events with friends or who wants to date a person he is interested in as a possible partner for life.

A time of reflection
So the upshot of these limitations meant that after 13 years of working as a union agent, Maynard decided to call it quits. For a few years he took on various temporary assignments as a labourer or framer, often working outside in all kinds of weather, until he realized he could perhaps switch sides and represent employers in contract talks with employees.

The striking difference between being a labour union agent instead of an administrative representative is that union agents work evenings and weekends, whereas administrative specialists work from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The rest of their life they can fill at their own pleasure, mostly . . . unless a difficult contract problem robs them of sleep.

And so about 15 years ago, Maynard made the switch. A human resources position came open at the University of British Columbia, and the rest is history, including getting married and starting a family.

By the way, as I write this, Maynard has just concluded contract negotiations with one of the more challenging unions on the campus. He is looking forward to a less burdensome year, before preparations commence a year ahead of the next round of bargaining, when the contract hammer falls again.

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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