Labour Relations Outlook

Updated: March 25, 2021

The impact of the pandemic in the bargaining environment.

How do you bargain during a pandemic? And what are others doing? This outlook informs labour leaders, management, and policy-makers about 2021’s unique negotiating environment and the issues that will shape it.

Our Labour Relations Outlook will be released in two parts this year—a Conference Board first.

Part 1 provides an overview of the collective bargaining conditions that unions and employers can expect to face, as well as the data needed to help inform your negotiating decisions. It also delves into key issues such as the economic impact of COVID-19, compensation plans for 2021, the union–management climate, ratifications, and work stoppage expectations—all of which will influence labour relations and collective bargaining in Canada over the coming year.

Part 2, a separate publication, encompasses interviews from management and labour leaders. It walks through the pervasive impacts of the pandemic on bargaining, discusses how organizations have pivoted, and shares insights on the top priorities heading into 2021.

The Labour Relations Outlook keeps me current with other sectors and organizations, and leads to better bargaining outcomes.


Part 1: The 2021 Bargaining Environment

Evidence-based information to guide your labour relations strategy

Part 1 of the Labour Relations Outlook 2021 brings together data from quantitative sources, such as The Conference Board of Canada’s Compensation Planning Outlook 2021 survey.

Hand guesturing while in a virtual meeting

Some key issues addressed in the 2021 research

The pandemic has shaken the economy, with some industries being destabilized and potentially taking years to recover.

Fourteen per cent of organizations are planning a base pay freeze across all non-unionized employee groups this year—up from less than 5 per cent in recent years.

The pace of recovery is expected to be slow. But optimism fueled by the vaccine rollout points to a consumer-led recovery during the second half of 2021.

Despite a tumultuous year, management organizations predict a cooperative union–management climate. Few anticipated work stoppages indicate that the pandemic has contributed to greater collaboration between workplace parties.

Part 2: In Conversation with Unions and Employers

Part 2 of the Labour Relations Outlook 2021 brings together qualitative research from 18 interviews with leaders from Canadian employers and unions.


Some key issues addressed in Part 2

The pandemic is the dominant story at every organization. Without a doubt, health and safety—especially mental health—is the biggest priority for unions and employers going into 2021. Challenges are expected to persist well beyond the pandemic’s end.

Many organizations have successfully transitioned to remote work and this is expected to carry through post-pandemic. Unions are aiming to introduce flexibility language into collective agreements. As well, management will be looking at key areas where they can increase remote work and flexibility in scheduling, while acknowledging its limitations.

Collaboration between union and employer partners is vital to surviving the pandemic. Organizations that are likely to find success are those that can engage with their stakeholders, labour, and employees in a candid and respectful way.

Though there will likely be a return to normal bargaining functions post-pandemic, some digital adaptations will remain. This is due to improved productivity or positive outcomes because of going remote.

COVID-19 continues to highlight the contention between wage increases and cost constraints, particularly for essential, low-paid jobs.

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