How much headway have the unions really made in reclaiming the workplace and
presenting themselves as a legitimate and authentic voice of all workers?
The trend for employees to use no win no fee lawyers and employment
consultants to represent them in tribunals suggests the unions are losing
ground, not gaining it.
Their original raisons d’etre is under threat and there are other pressures looming.
The escalating cost of pursuing legal action has made unions reluctant to take
on certain cases. And selling the benefits of union membership is much harder
now that new legislation allows staff to set up their own consultation methods.
Command and control management continues to dominate many UK workplaces and
yet there are still entire sectors and certain age groups that are alienated
from the union movement. Some 35 per cent of staff aged 50 and over are union
members compared to only 11 per cent aged 16-24 years.
Last week, we reported a slight upturn in union membership for the first
time in seven years. But overall numbers have fallen from 13 million to just
seven million in the past 20 years, and less than 36 per cent of employees are
currently covered by collective agreements.
There has been a lot of noise about unions reinventing themselves by
speaking for all workers, irrespective of whether they are paying membership
contributions. Staging a comeback is inevitably harder in a climate where
fairness at work is the new mantra, even though we all know employers and
sectors that refuse to bite that bullet.
Unions can undoubtedly be a progressive force for good in the modern
workplace. But they must be seen to be constructively making a difference.
In health and safety and learning, union representatives have been doing
just that, but the marketing of these success stories could be so much better.
The unions have a unique opportunity to reposition and re-brand themselves.
But at the moment, the only image the public sees is that of union in-fighting,
the rise of the ‘awkward squad’ and militant union leaders throwing down
gauntlets to anyone who will listen.
Responsible unions working with employers deserve to be embraced and not
treated like pariahs, but they have a major job to do in being equally
vociferous about the value they can bring. At the moment, that important
message isn’t ringing as loudly as it should.
By Jane King, editor