Partnering with unions needs commercial edge

Forging strong employer-trade union partnerships is as vital to successful employee relations in 2005 as it was three decades ago.

During a recent round table discussion with a number of colleagues in the HR profession and chief executives from many market sectors, I was interested to note that a number expressed the opinion that trade unions had “had their day”. They believed that trade unions no longer had a role in the commercial world.

As one with a little grey hair and some direct involvement with employee relations across a number of US, UK and European multi-national organisations, I reflected on the highs and lows of employer-trade union relations. During the 1970s and early 1980s employers with unionised plants and establishments always wondered on a Monday morning what awaited them: a new dispute, group grievance, wage demand, problems with differentials, a “wildcat strike” or work to rule? At the same time employers faced the mundane business issues: profit and loss results, revenue generation, sales and marketing and production targets to meet, for example.

During those heady days, HR’s time was predominantly spent in back-to-back meetings with trade unions and employee representatives, resolving disputes or fire-fighting. HR professionals would also spend about 40% of their time on line-management issues. These caused severe problems when trying to run businesses effectively.

Now the emphasis has moved on to partnership which, if used effectively, can result in “win-win” ventures for employers, trade unions and employees alike.

As the shape of the commercial world changes with offshoring, outsourcing, business consolidations, mergers and acquisitions and right-sizing, there remains a need for strong and effective trade unions, albeit in a re-invented format.

Trade unions need to look at the business issues of today and to consider meaningful partnerships with employers. They can forge pacts of co-operation that benefit both employees and employers. Unions could, for instance, work with business to improve workplace skills by lobbying, developing programmes and redirecting employee skills. Or by using their valuable Europe-wide links, they could join employers in initiatives to attract skilled employees – such as those with multi-disciplined engineering skills – from abroad.

Unions could play a key role in mergers and acquisitions, when there is an emphasis on rapid integration. In such cases effective communication strategies are vital, and could be jointly developed.

The offshoring phenomenon will most certainly increase and again, unions could help to develop effective models and meaningful, robust and broad employee relations practices and procedures.

So there is still a significant place for “real” employer-trade union partnerships.

By Stephen Hall, managing director, Stephen M Hall & Associates

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