End of marriage made in hell?

Trade unions appear to be losing interest in partnership with employers,
which is a good thing

In these days of smarm and cringe, it is always a joy to come across people
who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of them.

Take comrade Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union and poster
boy for the awkward squad. He may have passed up on the emotional intelligence
franchise, but as Lenin once said, "you cannot make a revolution in white

On the hard measures beloved by auditors, his numbers look fabulous.
Membership is up by 6,000 since he took over, which is just under 10 per cent.

His union has consistently delivered above-inflation pay increases through a
strategy of aggressively pursuing members’ interests to the exclusion of all
other considerations.

They are out on strike at the faintest provocation, ensuring publicity for
him, his organisation and his settlements.

And remember, he was only elected in February 2002.

Then there is nice Dave Prentis of Unison: left-leaning, certainly, but not
a proper ‘awkwardista’.

He is currently pressing for co-ordinated pay rises across the public sector
and has warned strikes could be used to get them. With 1.25 million members and
plenty falling away each year, Unison needs to recruit 140,000 people a year
just to stand still.

Last year saw a decent performance: net gains of 4 per cent. Yet, when the
union’s number crunchers analysed where this new blood had come from, they made
a startling discovery. Some 30,000 of them joined directly because of last
year’s national council strike. This finding is now feeding into strategy for
the next round of pay claims.

Militancy is no guarantee of members, of course, but there remains "an
historical association" in both the UK and the US, says John Kelly,
professor of industrial relations at the LSE. "When people see unions
doing something, they are more interested in joining; though militancy no doubt
puts a few off, too," he said.

This may come as a shock to those who believed the future of trade unionism
was all about pet insurance, credit cards, lifestyle services and the odd tribunal
payout. But it is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who deals with unions on
a regular basis.

I suspect the reason personnel practitioners were always so lukewarm about
the partnership vogue that became the dominant ideology of unions in the 1990s,
was because they could see it could not possibly last.

For many members, partnership was akin to digging the grave of trade
unionism with a jewel-encrusted spade. Why would anyone seek to be a member of
a union that sought to be a partner in successful enterprises? If you want to
be a business partner, surely it is better to invest in shares than shell out
for union subscriptions?

Perceived effectiveness is the crucial criterion that people assess trade
unions by: the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor. Most employees – just 19 per cent
of workers are members in the private sector – do not join because they cannot
see what unions can do for them.

The danger of partnership was always that members would find it impossible
to distinguish from passivity and demand their leaders start taking a stand.

Strikes remain anathema to many; union members are principally
professionals, after all. Yet it is not hard to see why good-natured activism
with limited aims in a just cause makes people aware of the point of having
representation in a way that legal victories never can.

The significance of unions turns on their willingness to use their
collective voice. This, and disappointment with the Government, explains why it
is now impossible to get elected to the leadership of a major union from
anywhere but the left.

When Bill Jordan, of the engineer’s union the AEU, began pressing the
arguments for partnership in 1993-94, he certainly made them sound compelling.
Set aside the confrontational quadrilles, he said; they are blunting the UK’s
competitive edge. Instead, celebrate the shared interest unions and employers
have in commercial success.

Ironically, his tone wasn’t that far away from the gospel of HRM.

"There is no more effective or productive tool than a genuine partnership
between employers, unions and employees," he claimed in 1994.

The problem was that employers and employees both started to wonder if the
partnership might not be leaner without that gooseberry ‘union’ sitting in the
middle. Employer and employee. Together in partnership.

Both personnel directors and union officials that struck ‘modern’
partnership deals – indistinguishable as far as I could ever tell from
traditional collective agreements – were often fiercely proud of their
creations. The prolix trust-building clauses, the dutiful acknowledgement of
each other’s roles, the delicate compromises over mutual sensitivities, were
indeed often a tribute to generosity of spirit.

Yet communicating these agreements was tortuous. Were they really different
from the old ‘sweetheart’ deals? Can employers give ‘no-redundancy’ pledges
with any confidence? Was there any point in joining a union that had limited
independence from management?

The era of rhetorical partnership may well now be behind us, and most HR
directors may not be too sad to see the back of it.

Trade unions are still a long way from being central to employment
relations. That feeling may fade if more union leaders start using their new
confidence without due regard to the memory of Norman Tebbit as employment

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