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CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Putting Our Money Where Your Mouth Is

Friday, July 18, 2008
I typically don’t waste time responding to inflammatory remarks that serve little constructive purpose. However, last week’s column, The Role of Unions, earned us a comment that I think needs to be addressed:

another cup of whine with that sir? said...

oh, here we go again. Sooooo, if I understand you correctly, you know nothing about your own union and it must be because unions are irrelevant, too old, incompetent? It couldn't possibly [be] because you have taken no steps to education [sic] yourself or to find out how to get involved? Noooooooo, couldn't be that. Must be everyone else right? Your series of articles are proving to be nothing but alot [sic] of whining about how no one is doing anything for you.....what are you doing for yourself?


I could respond to the comments above in any number of ways but most would be, much like the comment itself, beside the point. Below are my responses to the charges I can make out in the reader’s comment above.

Charge # 1: I know nothing about my Union

My union card is in the top drawer of my desk. My union’s website is bookmarked on my browser. I am subscribed to their relevant mailing lists, although I wish they used an RSS feed. I know about the EC conversion process. I know that the union is still negotiating the salary scale of my group and that so far “all non-monetary issues have been resolved”. I know that the preceding statement is also apparently enough to satisfy the concerns of most people affected by the conversion despite its complete lack of detail.

In short I know where to find the information they provide. Moreover, I have actively brought the subject up in conversation with others and have directed them to the information and have encouraged them to get their union cards. However, I also know that I had to go and find the information myself and that the $35 a month I pay in dues does not contribute to a proactive communications strategy (i.e. outreach).

What I don’t know, and what I tried to identify in last week’s column, is what their role will be for the next generation of Public Servants. Recall my previous statement:

My uncertainty regarding the role of unions stems from the PS’s difficulty in facing modern pressures (e.g. use of technology, work flow, time sensitivities, etc), and the demographic and generational challenges it has yet to overcome.

Charge # 2: I’ve identified unions as irrelevant, too old and incompetent

I said nothing of the sort. I said that I think that unions appear to have identified the need to reaffirm their continued relevance, and offered an example from the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s website. I explained that I didn’t think that organized labour, in its current form, appealed to Gen Y:

[Gen Y] is extremely confident in its ability to be top performers, not to mention has significant pre-government experience in performance pay based employment, [so it] has no reason to be concerned with performance based pay… one of the biggest issues our generation has in the workplace is poor performers who maintain employment not because of their proficiency but despite it. In this example, a collective agreement can be seen as a hindrance to their own aspirations rather then a guarantor of certain (self evident) rights in the workplace.

Nowhere in the column do the words ‘irrelevant’, ‘too old’ or ‘incompetent’ even appear. Well I suppose that isn’t entirely true. I did use the word ‘irrelevant’ once when I said that, “providing employment for life (i.e. indeterminate status) and pay increases tied to tenure rather than performance effectively makes one’s performance largely irrelevant”.

Charge # 3: All I do is whine about how others are doing nothing

I concluded the column by offering two constructive (and non-mutually exclusive) options – Union-led or Gen Y-led renewal in hopes of providing a small kernel upon which we can build future conversations. Again, quoting myself:

[I]ntuitively I feel as though there is potential for unions to step into the gaps that Gen Y sees in their work environments (work-life balance, being challenged in the workplace, training and development, promoting the use of new technologies and social media, better information sharing, etc.) and champion those issues in order to gain their support.

Conversely, perhaps it is Gen Y who should take the lead here. Collectively they could bolster their involvement in union activities, infiltrate their leadership and tune their activities towards their own workplace issues. I have a sense that if unions can be used to advocate issues that resonate with younger generations of workers, then they are likely to be successful in attracting their support.

I fail to see how either option can be construed as ‘whining’. It is my honest opinion that there has been a lack of conversation on the role of unions in the renewal process both online and offline. I thought the column was an honest effort to mitigate that fact.

Charge # 4: What am I doing for myself?

Unfortunately, responding to all of the above has offered relatively little new content to the subject of renewal and so I have tried to keep my responses short, clear, and respectful. Thankfully, the forthcoming response to this last charge is something I have wanted to put out there for a while because sharing ways to get involved in the renewal process is important. Hopefully it encourages others to get involved, share how they are involved, or make suggestions on how to bolster some of my own activities. I have broken down my efforts as best I could into categories.

In general
  • Contribute to working papers on renewal as it relates to different functions of government
  • Participate in focus or working groups inside and outside my department
  • Stay connected to people involved in renewal projects
  • Provide informal feedback on renewal projects through informal networks
  • Provide advice and encouragement to new hires and always offer my card coupled with an invitation to contact me at any point to discuss any matters further
  • Take my work seriously and make a concerted effort to consistently deliver on my responsibilities on a daily basis
  • Effect my overall work culture in a positive manner by demonstrating enthusiasm and welcoming new challenges
As an executive member of my departmental youth organization
  • Help integrate new hires by providing information relevant to new hires
  • Solicit feedback from new hires on the on-boarding process via informal discussions
  • Draft recommendations to senior management on how to better integrate its new hires
  • Host Lunch and Learns in order to facilitate knowledge transfer to new hires
  • Host social events to help new hires network with each other and with more senior public servants
As an executive member of my departmental intranet steering committee
  • Advocate for the use of Web 2.0 technologies and social media
  • Make recommendations to senior management on how to proceed with revamping the intranet site
As an executive member of my departmental training and development committee
  • Advocate and design informal mentoring initiatives
  • Evaluate development programs for employees
  • Make recommendations to senior management on how to streamline PSR campaigns
As a founding member and contributor to CPSRENEWAL.CA
  • Started a website on the subject of public service renewal
  • Aggregate information relevant to renewal and post online for the benefit of others
  • Write weekly columns that aim to contribute to the renewal discourse
Conclusion

There are undoubtedly people who disagree with the opinions that we present in our columns, that much is expected. What we publish on the site should never be construed as bitching, moaning, or whining (BMW). Our aim is to provide information to those who are interested in it, and respond to the Clerk’s call to get involved in the larger renewal process.

I’ve just shared how I am involved in that process – What are your thoughts? What kind of things would you suggest? What routes have you taken? What routes are you still exploring? Which routes should I avoid?

While I’d like to hear from everyone on these questions, I’m particularly interested in what ‘another cup of whine’ might have to offer. Ironically the comment did precisely what it accused us of doing with our weekly columns – it expressed displeasure with the current state of affairs, yet offered nothing by way of pro-active solutions.

With that – we’d like to renew our call for your participation – good comments or bad, let us know how we’re doing. If you’d like to see a particular topic covered, or if you’d like to help write on a particular topic, we want to hear about it, and want to help develop your ideas if we can.

Finally, to those who have demonstrated your support and offered your constructive comments, we thank you. Keep it up.

[Update 1:55 pm - please follow through to the comments left on this post by Chamika and Etienne Laliberté. Again, we appreciate your contributions.]

4 Leave a comment on this post to CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Putting Our Money Where Your Mouth Is:

Chamika said...

I think your blog is very insightful and echoes many comments and conversations that are taking place among most federal government employees. The negative comment you responded to sounds like it stems from a place of threat and insecurity instead of productive or applicable.

The role of unions in a knowledge-based economy is unclear to me as well - unions rely on a traditional, hierarchical model of organization and do not allow for the customization of your work description based on your own individual work choices. By setting salary caps, they also do not allow for performance rewards and thereby remove the human motivator that drives productivity, innovation and creativity.

Unions to me have always worked against human nature - you cannot foster ambition and creativity in an environment that assumes everybody should be equal. That is unrealistic.

I also find that there is very little information about unions distributed at my workplace and that the people who represent the union (the stewards) generally tend not to be very professional in how they conduct themselves at work and as union reps. I have asked many questions and have been asked whether I want to file grievance - I felt as if asking questions was interpreted as an opportunity to drum up some business for the union and that I would be used as an example of employer injustice.

I completely understood the point of the original article and agree with the fact that if the union wants to improve its image, they should re-brand for relevancy in a knowledge economy that is moving towards collaborative workplaces of mobile project teams.

Thank you for this blog - it's very informative and encouraging to read. It's nice to see people who care enough about their professions to try to create a community of public service.

Etienne Laliberté said...

Good response to the (anonymous) criticism you received.

A few things come to my mind.

It seems that the union - like the government - is suffering from work overload. In such a context, people tend to spend their time dealing with the crisis and the problems rather than stepping back to prepare for the future and address the issues that will resolve some of their problems in the long-run. In defense of the union, I know that the local representative work extremely hard and can barely deal with all the issues that employees and managers present to them.

As an ordinary employee with limited time on my hands, I am usually selective about what I get involved in. And if something doesn't show up on my radar, I typically won't make the effort to seek out the information unless I am really curious and passionate about the topic. For this reason, the information I am being fed is extremely important and will make the difference between getting actively involved and not even being aware that my involvement is sought out.

The same way we, as employees, are quick to complain that management and senior leadership are not communicating enough (especially during times of change), I don't see proactive communications and outreach as being exactly the union's strength. I would also add that the same way I sometimes think to myself that communications from the top are filled with buzzwords and lack substance, the wording and the tone used on much of the union's websites and in many the communiqués posted the board of the coffee room is... hum... "unique"(!) in its own way and, quite frankly, turns me off. I am aware that both communication styles can appeal to certain audiences, but I just don't fit any of the categories.

I remember making a presentation on staffing (http://etiennelaliberte.blogspot.com/2007/08/staffing-under-new-psea.html) at a union-management committee meeting, and being shocked by how both sides (managment and the union) were avoiding discussing any of the real issues. Sure, they were feeding each other with little bits and pieces to satisfy the other side (i.e. "I'm about the run a process to staff an AS-1 position in my unit") but I had the strange feeling that this was a tactic designed to satisfy the other party without having to go to much into depth on the "important stuff" so that no one would have to make significant commitments to change.

One of the better initiatives I've seen from the Employer to support PS Renewal was the Future Leaders Forum (http://www.csps-efpc.gc.ca/events/leaders/index_e.html). Similarly, I have taken part in an interesting course delievered by the union to develop young activists and prepare them to take future leadership responsibilities (hopefully in the union!). Both initiatives were characterized by innovative concepts and constructive ideas to engage young people and get equip them to improve the world around them. Then I look at Joint Learning Program (http://www.jlp-pam.ca/index_e.asp) and consider all the facilitators who have been trained across the country and I'm thinking: "Wouldn't it be nice of the JLP would develop a course on how to renew the workplace and use its network of facilitators representing the employer and the union side to engage public servants in PS Renewal?" Hey! This may be a good idea! I'll repeat it once again with the hope that it will make its way to the "powers that be" (both on the Employer side and on the union side):

-- "Wouldn't it be nice of the JLP would develop a course on how to renew the workplace and use its network of facilitators representing the employer and the union side to engage public servants in PS Renewal?" --

Final thought: there are some ways to get involved both in the union and PS Renewal. My Regional Director General has recently created a PS Renewal Committee
composed of a dozen employees from the region. This very diverse group (age, geographical areas, branches, expertise, etc.) will act as a "consultative" body produce recommendations to the Regional Management Committee and the Union-Management Committee on how to tackle PS Renewal in the region, how to link PS Renewal with other on-going initiatives (i.e. Public Service Employee Survey), and what projects we should be working on beyond the four public service-wide priorities. I was very pleased to see that there were a couple of "shop stewards" on that committee and I'm pretty sure that the perspective they'll bring to the group will reflect some of the union's concerns.

plillies said...

I am a union activist and president of a union local. I have collected selections from this post and ncharney's previous post and commented on them below. His thoughts are preceded by [NC] and mine are preceded by [PL].

[NC]: [Gen Y] is extremely confident in its ability to be top performers, not to mention has significant pre-government experience in performance pay based employment, [so it] has no reason to be concerned with performance based pay… one of the biggest issues our generation has in the workplace is poor performers who maintain employment not because of their proficiency but despite it. In this example, a collective agreement can be seen as a hindrance to their own aspirations rather then a guarantor of certain (self evident) rights in the workplace.

[PL]: It is important to keep in mind that when we speak of Gen Y, we are speaking of professionals, professionals who are probably educated than the boomers they are replacing. There are no Gen Ys in the road construction crews. So what is the effect of all that education. You are likely not only to accept pay for performance, but also to have been eduated in its virtues. Gen Ys will therefore be impervious to the generations-old arguments against pay for performance, such as that it divides the workplace, leads to currying of favour, and by discouraging the vast majority that perform just slightly less well than the star performers, enhances rather than diminishes performance differences. The seniority-based pay curves that are common in collective agreements are one of the best means of dampening down these deleterious effects.

[NC]: Nowhere in the column do the words ‘irrelevant’, ‘too old’ or ‘incompetent’ even appear. Well I suppose that isn’t entirely true. I did use the word ‘irrelevant’ once when I said that, “providing employment for life (i.e. indeterminate status) and pay increases tied to tenure rather than performance effectively makes one’s performance largely irrelevant”.

[PL]: Workplaces are not systems for producing products and services. They are systems for producing people. In fact, the primary product of all work is people, and in turn, the kind of society we live in. If a workplace produces competitive people with a taste for gizmos and consumer goods, then that is the kind of society we will have. On the other hand, if a workplace produces empowered, community-oriented people, then that is the kind of society we will have. Unions, by promoting mutual concern and democracy in the workplace, aim to tip the balance away from competitiveness toward community.

[NC]: [I]ntuitively I feel as though there is potential for unions to step into the gaps that Gen Y sees in their work environments (work-life balance, being challenged in the workplace, training and development, promoting the use of new technologies and social media, better information sharing, etc.) and champion those issues in order to gain their support. Conversely, perhaps it is Gen Y who should take the lead here. Collectively they could bolster their involvement in union activities, infiltrate their leadership and tune their activities towards their own workplace issues. I have a sense that if unions can be used to advocate issues that resonate with younger generations of workers, then they are likely to be successful in attracting their support. I fail to see how either option can be construed as ‘whining’. It is my honest opinion that there has been a lack of conversation on the role of unions in the renewal process both online and offline. I thought the column was an honest effort to mitigate that fact.

[PL]: Unions promote human development, and certainly work-life balance is a big concern for them. Human development is also important, but in the context of participatory democracy, rather than in the context of "training and development." As to technological tools, unions will use them if it makes sense to do so. I suspect that they will become more and more important as instruments for enhancing democracy within the union.

[NC]: What am I doing for myself? I have broken down my efforts on renewal as best I could into categories.

In general

* Contribute to working papers on renewal as it relates to different functions of government
* Participate in focus or working groups inside and outside my department
* Stay connected to people involved in renewal projects
* Provide informal feedback on renewal projects through informal networks
* Provide advice and encouragement to new hires and always offer my card coupled with an invitation to contact me at any point to discuss any matters further
* Take my work seriously and make a concerted effort to consistently deliver on my responsibilities on a daily basis
* Effect my overall work culture in a positive manner by demonstrating enthusiasm and welcoming new challenges

[PL]: Renewal is a major problem in hierarchical organizations such as we find in the typical world of work. Unions are democratic organizations that are highly participatory and take their power from the grassroots. They represent an alternative paradigm in which the problem of organizational renewal equates with ensuring human development. In this alternative paradigm, the trauma of replacing the leader disappears because replacements are continually being seeded and developed. If unions had their way, this alternative paradigm would also be the paradigm of the workplace. Hence, they are not so much interested in participating in organizational renewal as replacing the paradigm that generates the need for it. Indeed, my efforts at bringing this alternative paradigm to management's attention have simply been rejected out of hand.

[NC]: My point of departure for this topic is my contention that PS unions should, by default, have a vested interest in the renewal process, considering that their memberships are dependent upon the hiring and retention practices of the employer.

[PL]: Unions reject the paradigm that makes renewal of the hierarchy necessary. See my previous comments.

[NC]: Do recent immigrants and/or recent post-secondary graduates (two prime groups for PS recruitment efforts) feel any connection to organized labour?

[PL]: Unfortunately, these groups are least likely to feel a connection to organized labour. Post-secondary graduates will be fresh from being disciplined in the advantages of enhancing competitiveness through such methods as pay for performance, performance evaluations that focus on the individual rather than the system, management by objectives, relative ranking, and career self-reliance. These methods all stand in sharp contrast to the union approach which is to eliminate competition, enhance democracy, and improve the system rather than individual performers within it. New immigrants, unfortunately, have likely come here starry-eyed about the way our economic system works, so they are unlikely to be good candidates for unionization either. Give these groups a decade in the marketplace, then they become more likely candidates.

[NC]: The rhetoric of the above statement – the combative relationship between the employer and employee – fails to resonate with Gen Y. Gen Y has too strong a sense (whether warranted or not) of its own potential and importance for them to think that “belief that individuals can do better for themselves is a myth”.

[PL]: Unfortunately, most employers know the secret, which is to get other people to do the hard work for you, and pay them as little as possible. As I say, it will perhaps take the Gen Yers another decade or so to realize this.

[NC]: I only mention it because providing employment for life (i.e. indeterminate status) and pay increases tied to tenure rather than performance effectively makes one’s performance largely irrelevant. Public service executives have bonuses tied to performance. Private sector companies have been rewarding performance since before the dawn of time.

[PL]: Tying pay to performance is just not a good idea. Although there will always be problems with particular individuals, most people take their work seriously and do their very best. It is the system that lets them down. Focusing on the individual usually means that the system gets ignored.

[NC]: In my recent conversation with new public servants, I brought up the subject of unions. Being from the same occupational group, we share the same union. None of my colleagues could name it, had been contacted by it since they started their employment, or knew how to contact the union should the need arise. After our conversation I sent them information on how to contact the union.

[PL]: Unfortunately, those who do not paricipate in their unions will come to see them from their employer's eyes, which is unlikely to be complimentary. It often takes a crisis within the workplace--some serious transgression of human rights, for example--before a contact appears within the workplace and a local union organization can be established. Without this contact, communication with the rest of the union is likely to be sporadic and the union will appear antiquated, top-down, and even irrelevant.

-Philip Lillies
in
Moncton, NB

A little whine never hurt anyone said...

[NC]“I typically don’t waste time responding to inflammatory remarks that serve little constructive purpose. However, last week’s column, The Role of Unions, earned us a comment that I think needs to be addressed:”

[ME]Wow, I didn’t expect such a self-promoting, defensive diatribe to my simple observation. I thought when you asked for feedback you meant it…….nevertheless, it appears that my comments have sparked the most interesting exchange in your blog to date. So I guess they weren’t that pointless after all.

[NC]“I could respond to the comments above in any number of ways but most would be much like the comment itself, beside the point. Below are my responses to the charges I can make out in the reader’s comment above….I’m particularly interested in what ‘another cup of whine’ might have to offer.”

[ME]When you decide to go public with a blog, you open yourself up for comments both negative and constructive…..shutting people down with such an attack is quite counter-productive don’t you think? Perhaps you can begin to understand why public service-wide social networking and open opinion is going to take a long time. Even those who tout the value and benefits of it (such as you) haven’t yet fully developed the tact needed to invite provocative discussion.

[NC]"Ironically the comment did precisely what it accused us of doing with our weekly columns – it expressed displeasure with the current state of affairs, yet offered nothing by way of pro-active solutions.”

[ME]Actually, I don’t have displeasure with the current state of affairs and I didn’t realize that in order to provide feedback, I also had to justify myself. On the contrary, I accept it as my job to lead the way forward. In an earlier column, you said that our leaders haven’t yet told you how to make renewal happen ….but clearly you have heard the call, as so many of us have, since you are involved in so many committees. So, keep up the good work and perhaps you can find something positive to say about renewal since you are so involved.

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