Fanning the flames of co-operation

Unions
have a reputation for causing trouble, but they have also done a lot of work
with employers to improve productivity. Elaine Essery reports

The
productivity gap

Employers,
unions and individuals share a mutual interest in addressing the skills agenda
to help boost productivity. Providing learning opportunities through Union
Learning Representatives (ULRs) can provide a win-win-win situation – employers
benefit from enhanced skills, motivation and flexibility; unions boost their
membership, status and influence in the workplace; and individuals get the
skills they need to secure employment in a changing work environment. 

ULRs
have been in existence since 1998 when the Government set up a Union Learning
Fund (ULF) to foster a learning culture in the workplace. It created a network
of trained union reps and boosted trade unions’ capability to become learning
organisations by funding union learning projects. The ULF has supported over
300 projects, over 150 accredited courses and qualifications have been
established, and 66 learning centres opened. Last month (March) the Government
pledged a further £9m to enable unions to develop new training courses and learning
centres. More than 4,500 ULRs have been trained, rising to a possible 22,000
across the UK by 2010.

One
of them is Tom O’Callaghan, a Transport & General Workers Union (T&G)
learning rep with Metroline Buses in London. He helped set up the ‘Learning on
the Move’ partnership project which brought together the company, the union,
SERTUC (the South- East Region TUC) Learning Services, the College of North
East London (CoNEL), the Department for Education and Skills and Transport for
London.

Metroline
donated a double-decker bus which was converted into a mobile learning centre
using 11 PCs from CoNEL and a mini library of learning resources.

The
bus travels between eight garages on a rota basis, offering staff training in
IT skills. It has helped 140 employees gain accredited qualifications and
stimulated the demand to progress to the European Computer Driving Licence –
the Europe-wide IT qualification for non-IT professionals, accredited by the
British Computer Society. CoNEL is also looking to provide basic English
training linked to IT.

"Bringing
a classroom to the workplace has worked a treat. The eagerness is unbelievable,
people are much more confident and it’s a great leveller," says
O’Callaghan. "We’ve got engineers sitting next to bus drivers, next to
cleaners, next to canteen staff, sitting next to supervisors learning basic
computer skills." 

Absenteeism
had been a problem for the company but attendance has improved, as people do
not want to miss out on learning. Other benefits include better communication
among employees and between the employer and the union.

"It
introduces a different side of the trade union movement and has boosted our
membership," says O’Callaghan.

Garage
staff development manager, Mick Hodges, says: "Relationships with the
trade union are better as we tend to discuss things and work together more
closely. The project is a powerful motivator and there is more of a pro-company
feeling because people can see we’re doing something for them. It’s also
helping with staff retention."

O’Callaghan
adds: "All members of the partnership are happy – it’s an win-win
situation all round."

Employers
are not always ready to embrace the union-led learning agenda, however.
Engineering union Amicus has a national network of ULRs and organisers to
encourage people to become learning reps, but it has encountered resistance
from employers who consider training to be a burden on business, according to
Amicus director Richard O’Brien.

In
a sideswipe at the Government and firms that fail to embrace training
initiatives he says: "The usual suspects that sign up to any initiative
for investing in training are always there and the Government always trots them
out as an example that employers are willing to get on board." However, he
adds, the companies that really need to take action don’t.

O’Brien
also criticises the failure of UK businesses to invest in the skills of the
workforce and new technology.  This view
is endorsed by the Engineering Employers’ Federation, whose report Bridging the
Continental Divide, which is due to be published today, focuses on comparisons
of investment in the UK, Germany and France.

Now,
Amicus has moved away from the work it did on productivity in the 1980s and
early 1990s. O’Brien says: "I think every ounce of productivity has been
squeezed out of workers in terms of how long they work, how few breaks they
have and how many breakdowns. The problem remains not with the workforce, but
it’s dependence on employers – and managers, in particular – realising that
they have to make an effort."

Where
unions have contributed to increased productivity, recognition and reward have
not always followed. Evidence submitted to the Government’s review into the
fire service by the Fire Service Employers, under Sir George Bain, shows that
firefighters’ productivity has improved by 55 per cent in the past 10 years,
compared with a productivity increase in the economy overall of 19.5 per cent
for the same period.

Fire
Brigades Union (FBU) spokesman Tom Sibley, says: "The FBU has contributed a
great deal to productivity in that there is a lot of workers’ control over
operations and the service operates very much on goodwill. People are prepared
to be flexible and take on unusual demands and our members have always been
anxious to train in all the latest technologies." 

In
addition to its traditional firefighting role, the service has taken on many
extra responsibilities including flood relief, road traffic accidents, cliff
and river rescue and anti-terrorism – despite a shortfall of nearly 5,000
staff  at the end of March 2003,
according to Fire Service Statistics 2002, which is published by the Chartered
Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Modernisation,
one of the stumbling blocks in the current pay dispute, is ongoing and receives
general FBU support. The union has contributed to modernisation initiatives in
areas such as personal development, rank structure review and review of
standards of fire cover. It has also pioneered reform in areas of equal
opportunities and community fire safety.

"Our
members are rightly very proud of their record. We take a ‘can do’ approach to
all we’ve been asked to do but it’s not acknowledged or recognised in terms of
the rewards," says Sibley, who blames the Government for blocking the
employers’ proposed pay award last year, leading to prolonged strike action.

Giving
employees choice in their work patterns can affect productivity. A number of
unions are tackling work-life balance issues and demonstrating benefits for
members and employers alike. The banking and finance sector has been leading
the way through its union Unifi.

Barclays
is one of the major employers which has a partnership agreement with Unifi –
around 40 per cent of Barclays’ 60,000 employees in the UK are members of the
union.

"We’ve
been doing a lot around flexible working and are in the process of introducing
a progressive tranche of parental policies. Unifi have been very much part of
that process," says employee relations director at Barclays, Peter
Dugmore.

He
believes that permitting flexibility increases the business’s ability to
recruit and retain better people who are happy and comfortable in their roles –
and research shows that happy people are more productive.

"The
union is generally supportive in what we do. At the end of the day, if Barclays
is more successful, it means Unifi members will be more successful,"
explains Dugmore.

Another
project launched for mutual benefit was ‘OurTime’, a jointly funded work-life
balance project which the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) initiated
in partnership with the Inland Revenue. The union’s aim of exploring flexible
working arrangements for its members was harnessed to the business challenge of
delivering a more accessible service and extended opening hours to the public.
Three pilot projects were selected in the Sussex area.

The
Brighton Enquiry Centre sought to open for an extra three hours one day a week
and for four hours on a Saturday and used OurTime to test whether this could be
achieved using volunteers who chose to work the new hours for their own
work-life balance reasons. Another PCS scheme, The Worthing Telephone Unit, was
similarly selected as it aimed to operate an extra half-hour each weekday
morning plus an additional three hours on two evenings a week. A third pilot
was run to test the impact of greater staff flexibility in a non-customer
facing team and to counter any perception that OurTime was a management ploy to
obtain extended hours ‘on the cheap’.

A
traditionally adversarial culture had to be overcome for the partnership to
work but, despite initial apprehension, the project was a success. The employer
achieved the objective of extending opening hours through volunteers and learnt
a lot about how to manage flexible working.

"Productivity
has improved in terms of linking productivity with morale. People have shown
themselves to be more willing to take on more and different tasks to help the
business," says Christine Payton, Sussex Area operations manager for the
Inland Revenue. "We’re now setting up a group to look at the benefits of
being more flexible and extending it across the Sussex area. The director of
southern England  is also looking to
identify other areas where flexible working can be introduced." 

OurTime
provided the opportunity to integrate work-life balance with lifelong learning.
The union’s goal of establishing a learning network was achieved through the
provision of joint learning access points in Brighton and Worthing.

"As
far as management was concerned, learning centres were a way of showing we were
willing to give something," explains Payton. "It’s like having an
emotional bank account: if you pay things in, people are more likely to give
things out in the end. You have to show something up front."

www.tuc.org.uk/newunionism

www.eef.org.uk

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