Trade unions drinking in last chance saloon

Improved employee relations mean trade unions must adapt to the challenges of the modern workplace or risk becoming increasingly alienated, employers’ groups have warned.

Figures from the government’s latest Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) show a continued decline of collective labour organisation in the UK.

Employees are less likely to be union members than they were in 1998 (the last time the survey was conducted), workplaces are less likely to recognise unions for bargaining over pay and conditions, and collective bargaining is less prevalent.

The figures, released last week amid reports that the TUC annual conference may become a biennial event, suggest a shift away from collective representation for employees towards direct consultation with management.

Marcia Roberts, deputy chief executive at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said it showed that unions were stuck in the past.

“Their views represent the labour market of the 19th century not the 21st century,” she said. “Unions need a sea-change in their mood – they need to change their whole culture.”

James Fothergill, senior policy adviser at the CBI, said that as HR policy evolved, the traditional role of the unions became less relevant.

“Employees have greater access to managers and firms have taken on board the need for direct consultation, leading to less need for third-party representation,” he said.

TUC national organiser, Paul Novak, admitted that union leaders needed to promote their message more clearly to employees and be focused on the issues that matter to business.

“We recognise the need to look closely at our role,” he said. “How we evolve is important – there is no room for complacency.”

One form of evolution could be trade unionists becoming the consultants of the future, as demonstrated by former deputy general secretary at Amicus, Rory Murphy. Last month, Personnel Today exclusively reported that Murphy was joining an outsourcing consultancy. He said he could be more effective advising firms about good people management using the ‘carrot’ approach of consultancy rather than the ‘stick’ approach of the unions.

Super union takes shape

Amicus, the GMB and the T&G unions have reaffirmed their commitment to build a new trade ‘super union’ to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

At the first meeting of the working party established to carry forward the proposal, leaders of the three unions outlined their belief that the new union will greatly strengthen the industrial and political position of trade unionism in the UK.

If all goes to plan, the new union will come into being in January 2007.

HR feedback

Angela O’Connor
HR director, Crown Prosecution Service

“Until we reach the nirvana of management and staff relations getting to a level of complete trust, then yes, unions are still relevant. Unions must improve their marketing and become more professional in their campaigning methods.”

Duncan Brown
Assistant director-general, CIPD

“Unions are still a powerful political force and they exploit their relationships in the EU very well. They have a great influence on shaping European employment legislation. There has been huge growth in employee numbers in the public sector and unions are strong in that area.”

Beth Aarons
Group HR manager, City Inn

“Overall, larger employers do manage their staff better, so unions are called upon much less to act on behalf of their members. Some employees do still feel the need to have the support of a representative during performance management processes.”

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