Does the new ‘super union’ have anything to be bullish about?

Under the working title Unite, the new ‘super union’ – formed by the merger of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) – comes into being today (1 May).

The new union’s sheer weight of numbers – it has about two million members – has made the headlines and had employers scratching their heads as to what this means.

According to Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the implications will be limited in the short term.

“It’s difficult to see how this will hit individual employers,” he said. “This is more about the politics of the union movement and gaining clout with Brussels.”

The CBI‘s director of HR policy Susan Anderson remained similarly unimpressed by the numbers.

“It’s not size that matters,” she said, “but attitude. We are used to big unions. After all, the T&G had more than two million members at the end of the 1970s.”

Mention the decade best-known for major breakdowns in employee relations, and the question of whether the arrival of the new union signals a rise in industrial action inevitably follows.

Anderson believes the days of all-out strike action are long gone. She said that, in general, the union movement had moved on and today’s unions were more concerned with issues like skills development and work-life balance, rather than the more adversarial areas of pay and benefits.

The crux of employer/union relations happened on the ground with shop stewards, she said, adding that these relationships would remain unaffected by the manoeuvrings of union chiefs at head office.

Language of love?

But the language coming from the leaders of the new union does not suggest such harmonious relations.

Tony Woodley, former T&G general secretary and joint leader of the new union, said: “The consolidation of two strong unions will mean the industrial and political influence we wield will be greater than the sum of our component parts.”

Woodley shares the joint general secretary role at Unite with former Amicus leader Derek Simpson.

“Bringing together two organisations with about two million members combined will mean we can devote substantial resources into organising in the workplace,” said Woodley.

But while this rhetoric may sound bullish, Richard Hyman, a professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, suggested that the merger was a defensive move by two unions eager to bolster their presence in the face of a dwindling membership.

He said employers were unlikely to notice any difference initially while the two bodies concern themselves with organising their internal structure.

“The fact we are still unclear about the new union’s name suggests there is still a lot of internal politics to sort out,” said Hyman .

He believes that successfully bringing together two organisations with such distinctive cultures and identitities will be the main challenge for Unite.

With Amicus – itself the result of a union merger in 2002 – and the T&G representing workers from a broad range of industries, one outcome may be for the new union to diffuse into a “federation of relatively autonomous groups” centred on job types, each developing its own priorities, said Hyman.

Global ambitions

Commentators are also sceptical about the real impact of Unite’s international aspirations. Earlier this month, the union’s representatives agreed to enter talks with the United Steelworkers in Canada and the US, as the first steps towards a ‘global super-union’.

Woodley explained: “To tackle globalisation, unions have to operate at a transnational level.”

However, Anderson believes this kind of partnership is unlikely to affect the real concerns of employees.

“We are not seeing any employers wanting to negotiate globally on pay and conditions,” she said.

Watching its back

One organisation that may want to watch its back is the TUC. Interviewed in Personnel Today last week, its general secretary Brendan Barber had only praise for Unite’s potential to “bring real benefits in reducing duplication and pointless competition”.

But Hyman believes the TUC should be wary of the new union’s strength. He pointed to Germany, where the large unions tend to shun activities with the central union body, which today looks after the interests of the smaller unions.

“With [public sector union] Unison and Unite collectively accounting for roughly half of the UK’s union membership, they may feel they can do what the TUC does more economically,” he said.

Super union timeline

  • 1 May 2007 Joint executive council takes office
  • March 2008 Executive council elected
  • 1 May 2008  Council takes office for three-year term
  • Nov 2009 First policy conference
  • Dec 2010 Derek Simpson retires
  • Jan 2011 General secretary designate takes office
  • May 2011 New executive council takes office
  • Jan 2012 Tony Woodley retires. New general secretary takes charge

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