Research from Personnel Today and Eversheds reveals that the new super union Unite has been slow to communicate its strategy to the HR sector. Rob Willock reports.
After much anticipation, a bit of ‘will they, won’t they?’ and a fair degree of factional fighting, Amicus and the Transport & General Workers’ Union (T&G) merged to form Unite the Union on 1 May.
With two million members (that’s one-third of the country’s union members) across the manufacturing, transport, finance, food, agriculture and printing industries, it is the UK’s closest thing to a ‘super union’, even despite the relatively late withdrawal of the GMB union from the originally planned triumvirate.
So, five months on, what has been the impact of Unite, and what are the messages it is sending to members, prospects and employers?
Personnel Today, in partnership with law firm Eversheds, commissioned research among 500 of its readers – all with employee relations responsibilities – to find out what the HR profession has heard from Unite to date.
The first surprise was that only just over two-thirds of respondents (68%) were even aware of the merger of Amicus and T&G. Among HR department heads and above (who represented half of the sample), awareness was higher at 74%.
Of those that did know about the existence of Unite, 54% reported that employees in their organisation were represented by the super union, suggesting that Unite has members in around one-third of organisations.
The incidence of Unite members increases according to the size of the organisation, with the largest (5,000+ staff) twice as likely to have them represented in their workforce as the smallest (less than 100 staff).
However, the majority (55%) of employers with Unite members among their staff say they have yet to hear from a Unite representative since its formation in May.
Even more (64%) claim their organisation’s employees have not been briefed by Unite (though this assumes that they would know if this had been the case).
Those HR professionals who have heard from Unite have mostly been informed about its structure and contacts. A small number have been told about the union’s communication plans, and fewer still have received information on how Unite hopes to work constructively with employers.
In terms of the main Unite messages to the workforce, the truth is that nearly half (42%) of employers with Unite members among their staff admit they simply don’t know what information is being communicated.
Those that do have an insight suggest the message is about the benefits of union membership (19%), the background to the merger (16%), how to seek representation and advice at work (11%), and the legal, financial and industrial backing that Unite has (9%).
The survey asked respondents to compare the Unite representatives with the Amicus and/or T&G reps who they had previously dealt with (of course, in many instances it may be the same individuals). Few perceived any major differences at this early stage in terms of professionalism, effectiveness or likelihood to compromise.
However, one-third (33%) of respondents agreed that “Unite representatives have become more aggressive than when at Amicus or the T&G, perhaps as individuals from each original union posture and pout to establish their credentials in the merged organisation”.
And consistent with the general lack of communication, another third (33%) strongly disagreed that “Unite representatives visit more frequently than when at Amicus or the T&G”, maybe suggesting that internal, organisational issues are as yet preventing Unite officials from increasing their external profiles.
There is one thing about which HR professionals were quite sure – that “the merger will give Unite’s members more negotiating power”. More than two-thirds of respondents (69%) agreed with this statement.
Many (41%) also believed “the merger will give Unite a greater chance of employer recognition” than its forebears and a similar number (38%) agreed “the merger will make industrial relations more difficult” though in both cases it is worth noting that most disagreed with these statements.
Another thing that HR is in general agreement about is that the union sector will consolidate further in the future. Nearly nine in 10 respondents said that it was either fairly likely (69%) or very likely (20%) that other unions would merge.
The GMB (45%) and Unison (22%) were deemed the most likely candidates to seek mergers, while 12% believed that the next move would see Unite itself joining forces with another union. The prospect of a global super union is certainly worrying some HR professionals. About 37% of respondents said the formation of such a body would concern them, and this figure rises to 52% among HR directors.
A typical worrier’s comment was: “They may have more political influence, but I see less democracy and greater threats of industrial action.”
The majority, however, were relaxed about the idea of a global super union. One respondent commented: “A larger, more high-profile union may mean membership increases and an ability to recruit reps of a higher calibre, which can only be good.”
Another said: “Dealing with one union is easier than dealing with multiples.”
What is your overall opinion of Unite as a merged union?
- A merger of two weak unions does not make one strong union.
- It appears Unite believes that its size will give it a chance to ‘bully’ employers and try to force recognition agreements.
- I feel the communication from the new union has been very poor.
- As yet we have seen little change other than a very aggressive approach.
- It will have 18 months of difficulty in merging the Amicus and T&G cultures.
- It is difficult to give an opinion as we have received no communication from Unite and it has not made us aware of its agenda.
- Unite is still operating as a twin-track entity, but using a common branding.
- In future Unite may have even more impact if the GMB joins it.
- Unite should do well, as both Amicus and the T&G were previously good unions.
- Provided Unite plays a positive part in union/employer relations, as opposed to ‘flexing its muscles’, I think this may be a positive way forward.
- Economies of scale in operation should mean a better deal for both employees and employers.
- It can only be seen as a good thing for the members as long as it doesn’t become so big that it forgets its role.
Martin Warren, head of the HR practice group at Eversheds
The results of this Personnel Today/Eversheds research make interesting reading and contain a number of important messages for HR and employee relations practitioners.
It is clear that the new union has yet to engage fully with employers, even where it is recognised. It is perhaps surprising that only two out of three survey respondents were aware of the merger and less than half of those employers who recognise Unite have been briefed by a union official on the implications for them of the new union. And just 36% of survey respondents are aware that their staff have received communications from Unite.
These figures, however, represent a massive opportunity for Unite. The new union is not yet six months old and it is easy to imagine that much time may have been spent on internal matters to date. The union is now in a position, post the TUC conference, to spell out to employers and member employees alike what it stands for and what its priorities are going to be. This is particularly important given the diversity of its membership base, spread as it is from traditional manufacturing to financial services. If Unite can develop and deliver a coherent message to its key constituencies, it should be well placed to maintain, if not build upon, its current membership base.
Where HR professionals are dealing with Unite reps, the picture painted by the survey is one of ‘business as usual’. The results show that key behaviours of Unite reps are the same as before – reflecting in most cases that the union’s personnel have not yet changed as a result of the creation of the new union.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the survey concern respondents’ perceptions about what the merger means. Most agree that it will mean more negotiating power, but whether it will in practice may depend on whether the union can raise its membership density. Where it can’t, even with its increased size, it will not necessarily have any more clout with specific employers on specific issues.
A significant minority (40%) of respondents believe the merger will lead to more recognition agreements being concluded. Again, there is a big potential prize for Unite here if it can divert more resources to membership drives within particular sectors/employers. To launch a statutory recognition claim, it needs a minimum membership base of at least 10% of the claimed bargaining unit, as well as some other evidence of likely majority support in favour of recognition.
In practice, both the T&G and Amicus pre-merger tended not to go down theCentral Arbitration Committee route unless they had at least 35% to 40% membership density, a practice that is unlikely to change.
Finally, the results point to significant implications for the wider union movement, particularly the TUC. As a result of the merger, a clear majority (64%) think the role of the TUC will be reduced. As long as Unite stays within the TUC, it will inevitably have a dominant voice, although interestingly it did not appear to flex its muscles at this year’s TUC conference.
However, were Unite ever to leave the TUC, it would split the UK union movement. This is, maybe, an unlikely scenario, but it has happened recently in the US with a break-away group of unions leaving the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the TUC) to form the ‘Change to Win’ coalition. If the same thing happened here, it would weaken the consultative structure established, particularly since 1997, when the government has encouraged the CBI and TUC to thrash out a number of deals in the employment legislative field. Whether this would work at either UK or EU level with a weakened TUC is open to debate.
Only time will tell whether Unite is more than just the sum of its parts. What the survey highlights is the fact there is a massive potential prize waiting to be claimed by Unite if it can deliver focused communication to employers it currently deals with, as well as new targets, and if it can divert sufficient resources to recruiting new members – particularly in industries and among employee groups where it has been traditionally under-represented.