Labour and Employee Relations – striving to reach common ground

For Robert Comeau, Director of Labour and Employee Relations, a significant part of his work involves dealing with the unexpected. For that reason, it is important that he develop a tight working relationship with his team through methodology and communication, skills he honed in a career spent largely in the private sector. Read more.
From left: Robert Comeau, Maxime Tétreault, Maud Boyer, Alexandre Coutu, Sacha Liben and Kim-Marie Bill; seated: Arlene Donnelly and Anne Farray.

For Robert Comeau, Director of Labour and Employee Relations, a significant part of his work involves dealing with the unexpected. For that reason, it is important that he develop a tight working relationship with his team through methodology and communication, skills he honed in a career spent largely in the private sector. “In terms of my responsibility for employee relations, we need to ensure a common understanding of the issues, challenges and priorities in HR but also across the University. In labour relations, we need to project a unified approach in our negotiations with the various groups we deal with at McGill.” Robert is the University’s lead negotiator in all labour matters, but his team includes three labour and employee relations advisors whose role is to support HR advisors and managers in dealing with labour issues throughout the University.

Maxime Tétreault worked in security, construction and maritime transportation before joining McGill as Labour and Employee Relations Advisor in June 2010. Today, he is responsible for supporting managers in McGill’s residences, the Faculty Club, all cafeterias, food and dining halls and building services. He will also act as the spokesperson during invigilator negotiations. These facilities’ employees are covered by the Service Employees Union (SEU). Maxime deals with grievances, seeking resolution or settlement before a situation escalates and leads to arbitration. “In working with managers, there is often a fine line in making sure I am supporting them without intruding on their responsibilities as managers. They are the ones accountable for managing their staff. My role is to give them sound advice when there is disagreement and how to best resolve the issue before it develops into something more serious.” His most gratifying moments come from giving advice that generates sound results that are aligned with managers’ vision and objectives and where a sense of cohesiveness is restored. Maxime believes that effective labour relations rest on incorporating managers’ business strategies into the context of the collective agreement.

For Maud Boyer, whose main responsibility is to support MUNACA and AGSEM, her role as Labour and Employee Relations Advisor is also to seek settlements before they reach a critical stage.  She is on the University’s bargaining committee, involved in negotiations with the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) and the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM). In the latter case, she will act as spokesperson for McGill. One of her challenges is to resolve grievances, which can be demanding in terms of research and validation. On the arbitration side, it’s about accurate interpretation of certain clauses that are often unclear. Her greatest satisfaction? “It’s the challenge of reaching an agreement, particularly in difficult situations that at first seem impossible to resolve. What I consider most important in my work is honesty, trust and keeping my word; if not, my credibility is at stake.” Maud studied law but later moved into labour relations. She worked in the manufacturing sector and later at Canada Post before joining McGill in January 2009.

Alexandre Coutu studied industrial relations before working in the private sector as a generalist in human resources. He joined McGill in February 2010 as Labour and Employee Relations Advisor, focusing on labour relations, which is what he really aspired to do. He is responsible for supporting managers and HR advisors on the Macdonald Campus, Powerhouse Downtown, Trades, Printing Services and the Computing Centre, where employees are members of the Service Employees Union (SEU). Alexandre is also involved in negotiations with the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE) representing non-academic casuals. “This group represents an eclectic mix of employees resulting in greater complexity because of the different needs of every unit, department and faculty. But in the end, my greatest satisfaction lies in problem and conflict resolution, particularly when the solutions are mutually beneficial”.

Sacha Liben started her career at McGill in October 2010.  As a labour and employment lawyer in Legal Services, she plays a key role in supporting Robert and his team in arbitration matters. “Sacha is a welcome resource in giving legal advice to our three advisors to ensure fairness in dispute resolution. If a team member is unable to settle a grievance, Sacha pursues the matter through the arbitration process,” explains Robert.

Arlene Donnelly, Administrative Coordinator, has a full load, looking after negotiation documents, and registering and following up on procedures and complaints brought to the Commission des relations de travail (CRT). She organizes all meetings with MUNACA, MUNASA and AGSEM. She also works closely with Maud and supports Robert in budget administration and other administrative tasks. Kim-Marie Bill, Administrative Coordinator replacing Solange Roch, supports Alexandre and Maxime with union correspondence, filing grievances, first level information research, grievance database updating, arbitration arrangements and calendar updates for meetings. Kim supports Sacha in arbitration planning and coordination. Also among the group on temporary assignment is Anne Farray who is responsible for special research in documenting files relating to the various bargaining units.

Robert sums up the relationship with his team: “My greatest satisfaction is to see the team not only attain but surpass their objectives. There is nothing more gratifying than giving credit to a team member who has delivered on an important challenge. I can be demanding but I think people appreciate having clearly identified expectations. Another important objective of mine is to bring the unions to perceive the University as a credible employer. For that, our team’s actions must be consistent, and all team members need to be aligned with the priorities within HR and ultimately the University as a whole. I am proud of all my team members; they are true professionals who consistently rise to the challenge.”