Edwards Professor wins Best Dissertation Award
Release Date : November 30, 2011
Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour professor Dr. Dionne Pohler was recently given the Thomas A. Kochan & Stephen R. Sleigh Best Dissertation Award for her 2010 dissertation from the Labor and Employment Relations Association based in the United States. Pohler’s dissertation, To Compete or Cooperate? Three Essays on the Relationship between Unions and Employee and Organizational Outcomes, looked at the effects of management’s response to the union.
“There’s always been this debate over whether unions are good or bad for individuals, organizations and broader society,” Pohler says. “My thesis empirically examined whether management response to a union would determine whether or not the union would be a positive or negative force in the organization.”
She explains that Canadian labour relations are designed to be adversarial. “The whole system is set up as ‘us versus them’,” she says. “A lot of people talk about interest-based bargaining but it’s quite rare that management and unions can, in the long term, sustain that kind of a bargaining relationship.”
Pohler goes on to say that organizations that do maintain a co-operative relationship can see huge gains, and that management response plays a key role. “When management engages in trying to create a good relationship with the union, a union can actually be beneficial for an organization. Since unions are largely reactive institutions, the onus is on management to take the first steps in building a solid foundation. However, management is often ideologically opposed to unions, and this can get in the way.”
The benefits of co-operative bargaining apply not only to employees, but also to management and the organization itself. “Often times the parties assume they are fighting over a fixed pie. But when the focus is on interest-based or mutual gains bargaining, the idea becomes how to grow the pie together so both get more,” she explains. “Unions are always in this state
of engaging in defensive tactics and I think, if they didn’t have to be, more energy could be spent on how to create value.”
The topic of Pohler’s dissertation is timely given the recent strikes by Canadian organizations and the government legislating employees back to work. She explains how back to work legislation may only exacerbate the tensions between management and unions. “It can be detrimental when the government steps in because the parties forget how to work together, they forget how to bargain,” she says. “In the long run, that might create more animosity because labour and management aren’t working out those issues together.”
Based on her research, Pohler has advice for management when dealing with a union. “I think the best approach to take is to treat it like any other institution. We have minimum wage laws. We have minimum vacation times. We have other employment standards. Employees have the right to unionize,” she says. “If you have a union in your organization, acknowledge that they have a right to exist and that, at the end of the day, you have some of the same goals. Management wants happy, productive employees and if you can focus on the underlying issues and try to find solutions, that can be a good first step.” She also suggests management and union leaders attend training together on how to go about mutual gains bargaining.
Pohler says changes are also needed at the systemic level. “In some countries, it’s much more accepted that unions are a part of the fabric of the workplace. I think we need to look at some of our legislation and say, ‘how can we create a structure through which it doesn’t have to be adversarial from the outset?’” she says. “There are potential ways that we should change some of the legislation and framework to create structures to allow for the development of a more co-operative relationship.”
Pohler says she was thrilled to receive the Thomas A. Kochan & Stephen R. Sleigh Best Dissertation Award from the Labor and Employment Relations Association. “I worked on my dissertation for five years during my PhD and it takes so much time and energy,” she says. “It was the first major project that was mine from beginning to end. It’s nice to have it acknowledged that it was a good piece of work.”