The Thicker the Agreement, The Poorer the Relationship: An Examination of Public Sector Environments in Canada and the Intersection of Organisational Trust, COVID-19, and Collective Bargaining Agreements

Student thesis: DBA


In late December 2019, a new and emerging coronavirus came out of Wuhan, China. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, widely known as “COVID-19” (WHO, 2022), significantly impacted nearly every aspect of human life on Earth. This study, referred to throughout the thesis as a “project,” examined the intersection of collective bargaining agreements and COVID-19 in unionised environments in the public sector of Canada. Attempts were made to obtain participants from every province and territory in Canada; however, some of the invitees did not want to participate because of their own labour relations climate, or they did not respond.

The study had representation from a broad cross-section of Canada, including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario (as representative of the federal public service) and New Brunswick. Participants (N = 16) ranged from front-line managers to the most senior executive management in the public service, often called chief human resources officers or deputy ministers. The participants came from workplaces with some essential services component and remained operational during the COVID-19 health emergency. Throughout the thesis, the terms “pandemic” and “health emergency” are used interchangeably and refer to COVID-19. Participants that contributed came from organisations that are funded by and encompassed the three levels of government in Canada: municipal, provincial, and federal. Some participants were from publicly funded post-secondary educational institutions.

The project was guided and constrained by three research questions:

Q1: What role did CBAs and management rights play in how managers chose to manage their environments during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Q2: What were the shared opportunities and challenges (both economic and operational) created by collective bargaining agreements that unionised employers encountered during the health emergency?

Q3: How did managers manage the change to staff suddenly working from home?

Of note, vaccines and vaccination policies were outside the scope of this project.


In this thesis, after analysing the data and summarising the findings, there are four recommendations:

1. As measured by the items outlined by Dirks and DeJong (2022), the focus of the employment relationship in a public-sector unionised relationship should be one of trust, and this should guide the decision-making process.
2. Relationships that are fraught with challenges between unions and management should be examined with a focus on replacing the representatives to ‘reset’ the relationship.
3. Management and unions should explore the possibility of negotiating non-monetary items separate from monetary items and examine time-limitation clauses that automatically purge language from collective agreements.
4. There should be a renewed focus on items that serve millennial employees as an increasing representation of the labour market.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCarlene Boucher (Supervisor) & Deirdre Pickerell (Supervisor)

Cite this