Consultation works wonders in Wales

Increased
consultation with employers and unions has reaped benefits for a housing association
in Wales. DeeDee Doke reports on a prime example of how unions can benefit by
engaging with the employer

As
UK businesses develop their plans to better inform and consult with employees
under new regulations that come into force next April, a question facing many
will be just how the trade unions fit into the equation.

One
potential issue is the prospect that an employer could face more than one group
claiming to represent employee interests in terms of information and
consultation, if a recognised union already is represented at the business but
where a large proportion of staff are not members. Such a situation could lead
to a scenario in which an employer must deal with two separate sets of
representatives, says Ben Willmott, CIPD employee relations adviser.

“There
are some workplaces where unions are reluctant to take part with non-union
representatives,” says Willmott. “If an employer must consult with two groups,
extra resources will be needed, and there’s also the issue of co-ordinating the
separate views. That could be a real challenge.”

However,
some information and consultation projects already under way suggest that the
prospects are brighter than might initially be imagined. Derek Luckhurst,
assistant director of the independent, not-for-profit Involvement and
Participation Association (IPA), points to an employer-union partnership in
Wales which he says sets “the highest standard” for other such ventures.

In
a case study to be published in September, the United Welsh Housing Association
(UWHA) and its recognised trade union, Unison, serve as model subjects for
co-operation and a consultative approach to their dealings which, IPA says, has
won an 85 per cent staff approval rating.

“I
think it’s the best ‘best practice’ example you could find of a union working
in partnership with an employer,” says Luckhurst.

The
UWHA and Unison began a joint project in 2001 to introduce flexible working
practices to the housing association. “Both management and the union had
identified difficulties with the existing recognition agreement,” says
Luckhurst.

“They
both wanted the work of the association to be more fulfilling and engaging for
staff. In particular, the management wanted to embrace flexible working and
improve decision making, while the union wanted more influence on those
decisions, and to reinvigorate staff interest in the union’s work and, as a
result, increase membership.”

Subsequently,
the IPA set up a two-day workshop for the parties in November 2002 that led to
the adoption of an option-based consultation model to help build a new
consultative approach for the organisation.

The
UWHA’s business has improved, specifically in the areas of management empty
properties and the management of arrears, since opening itself up to greater
staff involvement. Other benefits have included improvements in staff pride in
where they work and survey results showing that 80 percent of staff believe
their line managers empower them to take decisions.

Unison’s
membership at UWHA has increased from under 30 per cent to 59 per cent.

“There’s
no reason a union can’t use its influence in a consultative framework,” says
Luckhurst. “We would urge employers to work with the trade unions, and we would
also urge the trade unions to work with employers to make sure they don’t lose
their influence.”

Outside
of the UWHA-Unison example, Luckhurst says IPA is seeing that “some trade
unions are willing to engage” with employers on adopting consultative
frameworks, “and others are suspicious of the organisations’ motives”.

Chris
Rutson, UWHA support services manager and a lay representative of Unison, says
the local initiative is succeeding because all the parties involved consider it
highly important. “Our hearts were in it, everyone’s is. The key thing we
always said was if we were going to have a partnership, it would need to be
very meaningful – or we wouldn’t do it. It would be pointless.”

“We’ve
still got things to do – we’re on a journey, and we’re not there yet,” Rutson
continues. “But it’s just that as you get better at it, you realise there’s
more to do, and we have got quite a bit better. We’ve got the structure and
culture now to be able to do it, and you only get that if it’s meaningful for
everyone involved.”

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