Is a labour dispute in your organization’s future, 5 things you should do now

Is a labour dispute in your organization’s future?
5 things you should do now – and 5 things you should definitely NOT do.

The past couple of years have seen significant labour disputes in Canada, across industries from public administration to transportation, with more than 2,223,920 person-days not worked so far in 2023 alone – more than in any of the past 10 years.

Given that some of the factors that led to 2023’s ‘summer of strikes’ – such as inflation leading to reduced purchasing power, a tight labour market, and a general ‘rethinking’ of work in the wake of the pandemic – show no signs of abating anytime soon, combined with many Canadian employers’ assertions that they’ll keep 2024 salary increases lower than those of 2023, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see the risk of labour disputes for some time to come.

With that in mind, it’s wise to ensure that your risk management strategies for 2024, especially for larger organizations, include an acknowledgement that labour disputes are a real possibility.

But what can organizations do to mitigate the challenges of a labour dispute?


  1. DO be realistic about the risk of a labour dispute in your organization.

Organizations that dismiss the possibility of a strike, shutdown, lockout or any other labour-related action often find themselves blindsided – and the chaos that can ensue can mean more significant lost revenue, longer strikes, PR disasters and long-term recruiting and retention challenges.

It's important to remember that even non-unionized workplaces can be at risk of labour actions, including things like work slowdowns, walkouts or wildcat strikes. Even though these are technically ‘illegal’ in Canada, they can still cause serious damage to an organization.

  1. DO strive for respectful communications between management and workers.

In our 30+ years of labour dispute experience, one theme comes up again and again: The lack of good, constructive communication between management and employees for an extended period of time tends to increase the risk of a serious, prolonged labour dispute. Without good communication across all levels, the risk of polarization – with ‘management’ and ‘workers’ feeling like they’re in opposing camps – intensifies, and that increases the risk of conflict.

  1. DO frame the labour dispute as an opportunity for creative solutions.

If you’re on the management team, it can be tempting to respond to possible labour dispute actions with hostility, frustration or ultimatums.

But many experts suggest that the current wave of increased labour disputes is simply a natural process, wherein management and workers can use conflict as an opportunity to arrive at a solution that delivers better results for both parties. Framing it this way, both internally and externally, allows everyone to approach the dispute as an opportunity rather than a ‘fight’.

  1. DO have a plan in place in the event of a work stoppage.

It’s always challenging to find the time to make a plan for something that might never happen, but the truth is that ignoring the risks can actually increase the chances that a labour dispute arises.

Labour dispute-related actions on the part of workers can happen fast: While the buildup to a labour action can percolate for months or years, a strike action or walkout can shift from ‘discussion’ to ‘shutdown’ in hours. Having a contingency plan in place increases the organization’s ability to respond effectively, safely and comprehensively.

  1. DO choose a labour dispute partner who can see the big picture.

“It should not be a combative environment, but one that starts from a place of understanding and respect,” says HR expert Dr Raeleen Manjak. That’s true when it comes to management and workers, but it’s just as relevant when you’re choosing a security management company to provide you with the resources you need in the event of a labour dispute action.

The right labour dispute partner can help both management and workers keep their focus on the big picture: Getting back to work on terms that everyone can live with, productively, without inflaming the conflict further.


  1. DON’T assume that it can’t happen to your organization.

While work stoppages that occur outside of the collective bargaining process are illegal in Canada, that doesn’t mean that a labour dispute process can’t affect your organization. Wildcat strikes, work slowdowns, even malicious compliance can all cause serious problems for businesses in terms of lost revenue, missed deadlines, loss of brand equity and staffing challenges that can drag out for months or even years.

What’s more, your employees have probably seen news reports of worker actions at companies like UPS or Starbucks, so they know that even if they aren’t unionized, they can organize protests or boycotts – which can be just as damaging.

  1. DON’T forget it’s never all about money.

It’s easy, from the outside, to make the assumption that labour disputes are all about workers just ‘wanting more money’. However, studies show that labour disputes arise from much more complicated reasons, especially in our post-pandemic economy: Diversity, inclusion, hybrid working, commuting, pension benefits, cost-of-living allowances, gender pay gaps, work-life balance, sick leave and vacation time – Canadian workers say that these are also huge factors in whether they decide to participate in a labour dispute.

  1. DON’T assume the worst.

When union leaders start talking about strikes or walkouts, it’s not unusual for leadership to immediately go on the offensive or take an immediate us-and-them position – and that can lead to a combative environment.

But in most cases, unions would rather save a strike as a last resort. Keeping the lines of communication open, looking for creative or innovative solutions, and going into negotiations with a win-win attitude can ensure organizations get to a productive solution faster and are set up for long-term success.

  1. DON’T assume that a dispute response can be mobilized instantly.

If you have hundreds, or even thousands, of workers across multiple locations, securing a strike action typically involves teams of security professionals, private investigators, training teams, evidence collection and control centers – all of which can take time to assemble and deploy. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to have a risk management and contingency plan in place as far in advance as possible.

  1. DON’T choose a labour dispute partner with a reputation for being ‘on management’s side’.

This is especially important when addressing strike actions with unions: In an already divisive environment, choosing a labour dispute partner known for taking a hard line with striking workers is almost a guarantee of more violence, vandalism and negativity – all of which can extend the strike and cost the organization even more time and money.

The right labour dispute partner can ensure that everyone is safe on the picket line or protest, that the right evidence is gathered and collated, and that when the dispute is resolved, there are fewer negative long-term consequences.

Labour disputes don’t have to be catastrophic. Approaching the situation with respect and a real willingness to find a way forward that works for both employees and the organization can transform the process – as can finding the right third party to help you navigate it.

Want to learn more? Get in touch.