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Can the Lockout and the Labour Conflicts at the Port of Montreal be Resolved? - A Mediator's Perspective

July 23, 2010

Longshoremen stopped working overtime as of July 9 and now they have been locked out from their Port of Montreal workplace by the Maritime Employers Association. As a mediator who specializes in complex and difficult group conflicts, the escalation of a labour dispute to where both sides start taking drastic action as a way of making their point is an indicator of a conflict with the potential escalate out of control.

Typically both sides believe that they are in the right and that they are perfectly justified in taking the action they've chosen... But the mindset that looks to figure out who's right and who's wrong is working to create a black and white reality in what is normally a very grey world. One of the things we as mediators have come to realize is that history, baggage and perception factor into the current reality in a big way. There will be multiple factors that are contributing to what is happening in the present - and if we ignore these factors it is unlikely that we will manage to resolve the situation.

Why do things escalate?
When there is a conflict, there are as many perspectives as there are people and groups involved. Each has a perspective on what is happening which is created by their historical experience of the situation, their relationship (or lack of it) with the others involved as well as the solutions that they feel would solve the problem. And the perspectives are often diametrically opposed to each other. As human beings conflict creates challenges for us. We find it difficult to see past our own perspective to be able to understand the perspectives of others involved. We typically see ourselves as the good guys and the others involved as the cause of the problem and the bad guys. While this is hardly startling information, there are dynamics linked to this reality that contributes greatly to the collective inability of those involved in escalating conflicts to be able to resolve them constructively. Rather each side perceives that the others involved are not listening, don’t understand the ‘real’ problems and are basically in the wrong.

It is difficult to help groups move beyond this mindset as traditional confrontational power based negotiation strategy believes that any acknowledgment that the other group might have any valid points would imply that my perspective is wrong and would involve losing face. As human beings we simply do not want to be seen as wrong so we hold tightly to our position – to the exclusion of any other perspectives.

In reality no group in a conflict has a monopoly on ‘rightness’. There are so many different factors that contribute to the evolution of the complex type of situation currently underway in Montreal.
• Do longshoremen have a right to the job security and payments mandated by the 2005 Collective Agreement?
• Do the employers have a need to manage expenses to keep their business profitable?
• What about the owners of the goods that are being held hostage as a result of the work to rule and the lockout?
• Are there better ways to resolve this type of situation?

Essentially lockouts and work to rules do not resolve conflicts – they are heavy handed strategies employed usually as desperation measures to pressure the others involved into giving in and acceding to demands. Can these situations be resolved more constructively – absolutely if the parties involved have the courage to sit down and negotiate seriously with a joint objective to find constructive and creative solutions to the issues involved.

What does it take to make this happen?
• A recognition that confrontation and power ploys escalate conflict and they are the easy way out
• Strong and credible leadership on both sides who are willing to recognize that everyone has some valid points and nobody has a monopoly on being right
• A willingness on the part of ALL sides to slog through the tough conversations and the challenges to learn about the needs of the other groups – if we don’t understand we can’t help to meet those needs
• A serious commitment to finding ways to resolve this – including sticking with it when the going gets tough.
• Help and support from someone who has credibility with both sides plus the skills, knowledge, experience and tenacity to work with those involved to find sustainable, practical and useful long term solutions.

Pressure tactics, power ploys and escalation strategies are grandstanding ploys that are often employed in an effort to force the other side to cave in first. It's also the easy way out!

In power based confrontational approaches to dealing with conflict the mindset is “I win best by making you lose”. This sets up the classic 'win-lose' dynamic we are all familiar with - and which many would argue is just the way things are. However it is not the way they have to be.

When there is a solid commitment to resolving a conflict in a way that creates sustainable long term solutions that meet the needs of everyone involved, there is great potential to actually deal with the problems and resolve them. This is not naivete or a Utopian 'pie in the sky' impossibility. Nor is it easy. This is the tough, determined refusal to give up and the recognition that the stakes are too high to take the easy way out where nobody wins. But this only works with a shift in mindset to one that recognizes that “I win best when you win too”. This allows both sides to meet their real fundamental, underlying needs, resolve the issues, bring closure to the situation and work together to create a successful organization – a winning situation for everyone. It's also realistic to recognize that in cases of serious conflict this type of conversation is unlikely to happen without help.

Will this happen in this case?
Given the level of courage, tenacity and strength this requires on the part of the leaders of all the groups involved, that remains to be seen.

For more information contact:
Ruth Sirman
CanMediate International
Phone: 613-256-3852
Cell: 613-298-8105

Click here to view our Sources Listing:

Ruth Sirman, CanMediate International Inc.

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