Partnership working in UK industrial relations is not simply a thing of the past, according to a new report.
Moving Partnership On is the culmination of an 18-month project run by the Information and Participation Association (IPA) and Unions 21, an organisation which provides a forum for unionists to discuss issues facing the labour movement.
It describes how organisations such as United Welsh Housing, Severn Trent Water and Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust have successfully used partnership working.
However, because partnership agreements between management and unions were initially popular in manufacturing industries, they had become synonymous with stale agreements and managed decline.
But since the Department for Trade and Industry set up its Partnership at Work fund in 1999, the concept has enjoyed renewed popularity, the report said.
Typically, it involves the two parties signing an agreement, which contains Partnership Principles, such as commitments to the success of the business, quality of life for all employees, and open and honest communications.
Both parties accept that on many issues, their interests are not aligned and that on those issues collective bargaining and negotiation remain the most appropriate course of action. However, in those areas where agreement has been identified, management and unions can gain a lot from joint working and decision-making.
Employers and unionists who have been involved are on the whole very positive about partnership working. Tim Page, senior policy officer at the TUC, says: “Where there is a real commitment on both sides, and an honest recognition of shared goals, this approach can offer a better way of working than traditional industrial relations.”
And Richard Wainer, senior policy adviser at the CBI adds: “The trend is for relations between unions and management to become more productive, and we fully support instances where they are working in partnership.”
The report also outlines what is needed for partnership working to become more effective and widespread.
It says there is a need to refocus partnership working away from senior trade unionists and managers and towards employees on the front line. Crucially, unions and management need to establish effective working relationships at all levels and all locations of a company.
John Gilkes, HR adviser at Roffey Park management school, agrees: “Enlightened leaders understand the critical importance of engaged employees and are prepared to involve them and their representatives in genuine joint problem-solving.”
One organisation that has enjoyed the benefits of partnership working is The Children’s Society. The charity has worked closely with Amicus for the past 20 years, jointly developing HR and recruitment policies.
Recently, management and union leaders successfully revised job descriptions and rewards for the organisation’s project leaders and administrators.
Stephen Wilson, personnel policy manager, says: “Through partnership working we’ve been able to abandon the stereotypes of conflict and work together in the interests of children and young people, which is what The Children’s Society, and those who work for it, are about.”