Unions can still achieve old-fashioned victories over employers. Stephen
Overell reports on the impact on the partnership approach to industrial
A shorter working week for train drivers won by just one day’s strike at
Connex; razor blades in envelopes to Communication Workers Union members who
might vote for new working practices at the Post Office; and the prospect of
white-collar Ford workers going on strike because they didn’t get the same pay
rise as their blue collar colleagues – long-in-the-tooth industrial spectators
could be forgiven for thinking ‘wa-hey, back to the good old days’.
These have not been a happy few weeks for partnership. At the yearly
knees-up of the fraternity, the Anuman conference, Willy Coupar, director of
the Involvement and Participation Association, accused some of seeking to
"pocket the benefits" and then behave like partnership had never
Distinctly old Labour-style victories by unions such as Aslef, which, like
the main rail union the RMT, has a fair smattering of Socialist Labour Party
members on its executive, have not helped matters – if anything they make the
achievements of partnership look rather meagre.
Reality on the ground
The events perhaps underline what academics have long been warning about the
partnership vogue: it may be fashionable to talk it up, but it does not really
correspond to a widespread reality on the ground. It is certainly not to
everyone’s taste. "Partnership agreements have arisen from a very specific
set of circumstances, rather than a general climate," says David Shepherd,
editor of IRS Employment Trends.
He cites two of the best-known agreements – at Blue Circle and at Tesco.
Blue Circle was being undercut by cheap European rivals and needed to restore
competitiveness; Tesco was already the country’s most successful food retailer
and wanted to sustain its position by paying above the odds in return for
better customer service. "Partnership fitted the commercial needs of the
organisations," Shepherd says.
The Aslef-Connex relationship could not be more different. Even if Aslef had
wanted a partnership with Connex, it was not going to happen. The French-owned
company, serving Kent, south London, Surrey and Sussex, is known throughout the
rail industry for its tough stance on industrial relations. One million pounds
the poorer, it has suffered for it.
According to Jeremy Waddington, senior lecturer at the Industrial Relations
Research Unit, based at the University of Warwick, Aslef’s victory is "a
classic example of one group of workers within the labour force having a great
deal of bargaining power. If you have near 100 per cent unionisation and an
instantly disposable product like a train journey you wield immense
In the wake of a successful strike, Aslef’s leaders are not going to be
convinced that they could serve their members better with a partnership
However, a bit of union muscle-flexing is not necessarily a bad thing for
partnership as a whole. With union recognition deals increasing – a record 75
were signed between January and October last year, according to the TUC –
managements may well examine the situation and ask themselves what sort of
relationship with trade unions they want.
"Partnership for management only really makes sense if unions have some
sort of strength or else why do it at all," says Shepherd. "The
places where it has been most successful are where unions were deeply embedded
and have been gradually moved towards a partnership approach."
Last September, John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society,
presented his report to the DTI based on in-depth studies of 15 organisations,
which identified clear commercial dividends for companies from partnership in
terms of performance, commitment and ability to respond to change.
Benefits flowed for employees as well, he found. They may not have been a
pay rise, or a cut in hours, but they were tangible – an enhanced voice, task
discretion, openness, involvement and greater employability. He argues that
Aslef’s victory merely makes the age-old point that union ability to exact
concessions depends on the conditions.
"Can strikes be a short-cut route to improvements? Well, yes,
absolutely. That is the traditional view, which sees unions as a second tier of
management with a right of veto. But the advocates of partnership will wonder
whether the gains are durable and might not be recouped when the economic
pendulum swings back.
"Managements have not fallen out of love with prerogative nor have unions
stopped being opportunistic, but the exciting developments in industrial
relations are on the middle ground. There is a growing convergence on the right
way to manage a workplace through a joint problem-solving approach."
That said, convergence does not mean consensus. Within the TUC general
council alone, there is an evident pluralism of approach to relations with
employers. The union which has done best out of the recognition legislation is
also that which has done most to promote partnership, the AEEU.
But it is not for nothing that its leader, Sir Ken Jackson, is regarded as a
pariah in sections of the movement for trading improved consultation for
no-strike deals – a version of partnership that will be too extreme for many
unions for a while yet.
Mountains to climb
• There are no union members in 47 per cent of all British workplaces,
against 36 per cent in 1990
• In just 2 per cent of workplaces are all employees union members against 7
per cent in 1990.
• Only six per cent of employees under 20 are union members, rising to 19
per cent of those between 20 and 29
• According to Trade Union Trends, 43 per cent of all unions have secured
new recognition deals covering 21,336 workers. Nine out of ten were in the
private sector and 85 per cent covered pay and terms and conditions.
• Almost half (48 per cent) of recognition deals came about after a
recruitment campaign. Only eight cases of derecognition reported
• Unions are currently engaged in 136 recognition campaigns covering over
70,000 workers. In 40 per cent union membership is above 50 per cent. Source: