It’s fair to say unions often get the managements they deserve

It is often said that managements get the unions they deserve. However, I also think unions often get the managements they deserve.

Here we are in the usual charade of the Tube unions threatening and taking strike action. With a settlement reached over one dispute, they are keen for more. Usually, the ‘health and safety’ reasons are a smokescreen for pay or shorter working weeks, or to prevent management from managing the organisation. But one thing is for sure: they strike because it works.

Tube drivers have done rather well out of all this. By following their union leadership, their pay has massively increased, while the hours they work have steadily reduced. In fact, over the past six years, their pay has gone from a basic of £18,000 to around £32,000 per annum. Clearly, their union’s strategy has been a success, and it is no won-der the membership backs the leadership.

London Underground management is in a no-win situation when it comes to industrial relations. It has to deal with extreme financial constraints and demands on maintenance and service, while at the same time investing in the infrastructure to keep up with – and even ahead of – the way in which London is changing. There is also the small matter of the Olympic Games rearing its head. And on top of this, it has to contend with the politics of City Hall – particularly when it comes to the unions.

All these factors are pressure enough, but when you also throw in a bunch of trade unions that don’t want to engage with management to tackle these issues, it’s almost impossible. This is a shame, as unions can add real value to solving some of these issues, but history and infrastructure almost prevent it from happening.

I attended a set of London Underground pay negotiations during my time with Transport for London. We all sat at an old, round table in a very old room at London Underground’s head office, in a very old building. Of course, management and unions sat opposite each other (with five representatives from four unions, and a similar number on the management side in the room). You can really feel the tension in those meetings, but there is as much tension between the different unions as there is across the table.

The meetings are conducted in a business-like way. The chairperson is normally a senior manager, and each union is asked to respond independently to points or to put forward their position.

Unions are often at odds with each other, mainly due to the fact they represent different groups of staff with very different needs and wants. Trying to negotiate and reach compromise in that setting is tough for all concerned. Separating out discussions to cover the different groups of staff, moving away from single-table bargaining or trying other methods to break the history, may start to improve things

There are some very good union-management relationships at London Underground, particularly at a local level. There are some very bright, committed union reps who solve many problems and push important areas such as fairness at work, dignity and diversity. Where it breaks down is on the bigger, political issues, which tend to get played out in the public eye.

But the real industrial relations take place in the depots, where staff, management and union representatives have to get along. This is where relationships can be the most effective, but also the most destructive. It all comes down to the individuals, and how they conduct themselves. A sensible union rep should get a sensible response from the manager. An obstructive and unreasonable rep will probably get an unreasonable response from the manager.

I am not saying that all managers are good and all union reps are bad – far from it. But I think some union reps have to open their minds to the possibility that what you put into a relationship is what you get out of it. On the whole, they get the managers they deserve.

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