During an Aboriginal Business Match event in Nanaimo, we connected instantly over our shared workplace-related work with First Nations clients and quickly discovered a current issue that has us equally concerned: our observation of an increase in unions targeting First Nations businesses.
The unionization of First Nations employees is not a new issue. However, the extent to which unions have organized First Nations members across Canada (or, in some cases, have reached voluntary agreements) has not typically been seen before in First Nations businesses. Most often it has involved workers of First Nations government-related entities providing community services such as teaching, health services and ambulance services.
Union involvement in these First Nations services is very similar to public-sector services offered by the provinces, which remain heavily unionized. Arguments for and against unionization in the public sector are very different from those in the business context.
Our shared experience with the unionization of First Nations businesses is that it often leads to unexpected and difficult situations and, in many cases, is undesirable.
A case in point involves a First Nation joint venture, created to offer training and long-term, stable employment for band members, which was significantly disrupted by a union organizing effort. The union’s hiring hall policy allocated shifts to its most senior workers first. The band members would be new union members and, therefore, among the most junior in the union. As a result, they would be consistently the last workers in line for shifts. This meant that more senior, non-band-member union members would have greater opportunity to work on the band’s joint venture on its traditional territory using band-owned heavy equipment. This seriously undermined the band’s purpose for creating the joint venture – the training and employment of band members.
As unionization continues to decline in the private sector, it appears that unions are looking to expand their reach in a variety of ways. As First Nations businesses in British Columbia continue to be formed and to grow at an exponential rate, we believe that such businesses represent an opportunity for unions wanting to expand their membership.
Given the vulnerability of First Nations businesses to union organizing efforts, awareness of the risk is critical. If a First Nation does not want its businesses to become unionized, it is imperative that it be familiar with the signs of a union organizing drive and know when to call an experienced labour lawyer.
Ultimately, however, prevention should be the focus. There are many steps businesses can take to reduce the possibility of unionization. Experience has shown us that when solid human resources practices are in place and running smoothly, employees have little reason to join a union. Good management is key.
At a minimum, businesses should ensure that HR practices align with their desired business culture and should integrate local culture to support the community they serve. This means focusing on vision, values, goals and symbolism. When culture is aligned with workplace practices, employees are more engaged and feel connected to the business and committed to its success.
Just as businesses insure against external threats, it is crucial to insure against internal threats as well. Investing in HR will provide you with this essential protection and will ultimately make a business more productive. •
Cori Maedel is CEO of Vancouver-based human resources consulting firm Jouta Performance Group. Labour and employment lawyer Jennifer Wiegele is a partner with Miller Titerle + Co.