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Building Consensus Within the RCMP

Mar 01

I’ve debated with myself, since the SCC gave you the option to consider a union (among other alternatives) as to whether I should share my experience with you or not. As you can see I’ve decided to share my experience with you and offer an opinion. (I don’t think I’ll be receiving a call from the Commissioner or any of his “execs”, to consult? Do you?). As you may recall my experience, in this area, comes from being instrumental in the creation of the C.F.L. Player’s Association; and serving for several years as one of the Montreal Alouettes’ player representatives. The other reason I feel compelled to write something is that I would like to clarify and inform those of you who may not have much experience, or knowledge, in and of a union environment; or the fact that there are other alternatives.

Consensus can mean different things; therefore you must first come to a definition of consensus for your purposes. Will it be that you only have consensus when all members (of a union/association) demonstrate agreement or will consensus be achieved with simply a majority vote? What will happen if you are unable to achieve consensus, no matter what definition you use? Who will the fallback decision makers be? In a hierarchical organization (like yours) the fallback is most often a single person (would you trust, for example, the present Commissioner in this role?); in a more horizontal organization, usually the decision is made by a majority vote; and in public sector consensus building the fallback is most often to use a formal decision making group (e.g. a public agency or a court). It is thought, that it is the threat of having to rely on the fallback option that keeps the conflicting parties engaged in the resolution process.

The attainment of consensus requires an interest, on both sides, in the outcome of the resolution process. If either party thinks that the other has already made a decision, and is just “going through the motions” there will be a cloud of discontent over the proceedings. There is also a belief in consensus building that “the more the merrier”; that is, better decisions will arise from increased participation, as there will be more ideas/options “on the table”.

This type of decision making (in contrast to what you have now i.e. “decision by decree”) requires everyone effected by the decision to have a voice, and the opportunity to participate. At times, some decisions will require the involvement of horizontal units within the hierarchy (e.g. general duty, specialized units, detachments, divisions) and others may focus more on the vertical elements within the hierarchy; some decisions, may require both. For example, the Force (i.e. “you”) may want to implement new policies around shift work, overtime, salaries, or time off. As these policies involve almost everyone, members from all units, all divisions, and all rank levels may need to be part of the process. In a true “union shop”, the union/association could refuse to participate or demand a reopening of contract talks. In a case such as this, the Commissioner and his “exec’s”) would have to develop a method/process of working with the union, or on the other hand, how they would move forward without union participation. What should be apparent here is that consensus building is not the “method of choice” unless both sides are represented.

Reaching labour equity through consensus building takes time and effort. In most organizations the process is reserved for only the most important issues. In many organizations where consensus building is held in high esteem, other decision making processes can be employed depending upon the importance of the issue.

To give the preceding some life, perhaps an example may help. Several decades ago there was a labour-management crisis following a strike at (what shall be an unnamed) Correctional Service of Canada Correctional Centre (you may recall that I worked for CSC for several years). An American consulting firm was hired to improve the relationship between union employees and management staff; the goal being to get these parties to work together in a more cooperative manner, decrease tension, create a more positive working environment, create systems designed to resolve union/management conflict in a constructive/proactive manner, and resolve specific conflicts. This all took place in the shadow of an independent evaluator’s report that identified serious concerns in institutions all across the country; and focused on the specific institution that I write of.

The American consultants visited the institution a half dozen times over an approximately 6-8 month period (my memory “ain’t what it used to be”). As I recall they held several general meetings with both labour (union) and management present and they kept an “open door” policy where any staff member could go for an unofficial chat and “anonymously” if necessary. Several problems were identified (no, I won’t list them all – remember the memory thing?) ranging from a lack of trust between labour and management, through a huge back log of grievances, to a lack of processes for basic (simple) conflict resolution, resulting in excessive time away from work and the unnecessary escalation of these conflicts into formal processes (like long drawn out grievances). Does all of this sound familiar to you?

To make a somewhat long story short, the consultants’ first step was to create a “steering committee”. It was composed of four members selected by management, and four by the union. The outcome, after much discussion, was an intervention plan, specifically focused on training and a new dispute resolution process that was put to immediate use; settling several outstanding issues, monitoring the progress of the project, overseeing the implementation of the solutions to the previously mentioned “outstanding issues”, and providing feedback to the consultants.

The new dispute resolution process evolved positively over several months. This was as a result of an improved relationship between labour and management; and a more than adequate amount of time for both labour and management to “sell” proposed changes to their constituencies. Consequently, the proposal went through several variations before the larger group agreed on a plan and an implementation process.

It’s somewhat predictable that at this point, using this method, that resistance to change will emerge. Some individuals (the “Commish”?) or whole departments (responsibilities of the “senior execs”?) may feel threatened. For instance, the creation of a union/association grievance committee reporting directly to the Commissioner may threaten the HRO; or the legal department may fear a loss of control as more conflicts are resolved through mediation. On the other hand, the union/association leadership may prefer the traditional grievance procedure, and dislike less adversarial approaches. Those involved in the design of the changes, most often union leadership, may prefer the traditional grievance procedure and dislike the less adversarial approach. The design group needs to devise strategies to allay these fears (if this is the model you prefer). Alternatively, the group may need to renegotiate bits and pieces of the proposed model to build a stronger organizational consensus.

In a thorough look at consensus building, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are likely to be, across the RCMP membership, those who have concerns and questions. Reservations about adopting a new system of labour/management relations are not the exclusive domain of managers. So to conclude, I’ll attempt to pose some common questions and a brief response to them (from my perspective, of course):

• If we engage in consensus building aren’t we doing what management should be doing? And we aren’t getting paid to do it!

MPPAC members would participate in consensus building to have an influence on the outcome of critical issues that were previously decreed upon you. You won’t be doing management’s job; you are having an influence on decision making by expressing your concerns and interests in a direct manner. You won’t be paid but you’ll receive public recognition, increased status, and the association/union will gain strength.

• How can we be sure that management will even listen?

Don’t forget the SCC ruling that you just received! Management has had to give approval for a process. If they reject a consensus recommendation, they chance jeopardizing their credibility and their ability to recruit the troops for future cooperative efforts.

• Won’t a consensus building process weaken the union as the representative of the membership?

This is not necessarily true. In fact consensus building often provides opportunities for unions to work with management at a “higher level” than in more oppositional approaches. This type of labour/management dispute resolution always involves union leaders to make sure all views are heard and that the members approve agreements.

• How does consensus building fit in the context of a para-military organization?

The consensus building process attempts to address the needs of all parties involved. Management will still be offered the respect they have earned as individuals and as “ranks”. The process allows for each party to educate the other; and if done well, the process can contribute to an increase in reciprocal respect.

• How could consensus building be introduced to a para-military organization like the RCMP, with such a long history of hierarchical (top-down) decision making?

It may have its’ problems initially but the transition will occur as management has discovered that the old way doesn’t work anymore and the SCC has told them to come up with something new. History shows that hierarchical organizations like the RCMP often try consensus building, initially on a case by case basis first, with a narrow mandate for a decision-making group. They may want to start small and get bigger, but don’t forget they have the SCC to answer to.

• Is there an issue that is so serious that consensus-based procedures won’t work in the context of present labour-management relations in the RCMP?

History suggests that large paramilitary organizations have difficulty developing new dispute-handling processes. It seems more effective to address (in these cases) the labour/management relationship first, using a consensus based process like, for example, mediation. The CSC example utilized earlier demonstrates this well.

In conclusion, please understand I have presented one model of what MPPAC might look like. Collaborative problem solving can only be engaged in if the MPPAC has a greater degree of power than it has previously had. The SCC has opened the door. Perhaps a collaborative approach like the one outlined here will be more palatable to more RCMP members than what they are imagining. Even a consensus approach can result in problem solving procedures that effectively handle a variety of disputes, whether they are intra or inter – detachment (or division), labour management issues, or personnel related. The process can make use of consensus-based techniques such as: negotiation; facilitation; peer coaching; and, mediation, in contrast to what most living, breathing members have recognized as a top-down decision making process that has for decades benefitted management at labour’s expense.

“As long as you keep your hand in the fire, it’s a waste of time hoping you won’t be burned”.

Dr. Mike Webster, R.Psych.

Just to keep you in the loop; I haven’t heard anything from the Commissioner’s “people”. Do I have to put my NWA Heavyweight Championship Belt on the line to get a call from this guy? Oh wait a minute, now I get it, he’s a “flyweight”! We may have to handicap this match.

“Iron Mike”

  1. Well said Iron Mike.


  2. Scottish Soldier permalink

    These last 4 blog entries are absolutely outstanding!
    Please let me know when and where this battle is taking place. I want a couple of ringside seats. Do you think they might be available through Ticket Master?
    Scottish Soldier


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