Partnership is the word of the moment. Most of us have sat through presentations about the true nature of the thing. Some of us have even given those presentations. Still the concept remains slippery. Is it really a step change in mature workplace relationships? Or is it a deeply cynical ploy by alienated trade unions to try to charm managers into believing the 1970s never happened?
The last few months have seen more real work. The Government’s first round of varied partnership fund projects is under way. The Involvement and Participation annual conference featured several organisations demonstrating their partnership credentials. These were not the usual suspects who, come rain or come shine, not only say people are their greatest asset, but live it. The TUC will launch its partnership institute soon, in which it will gather a group of consultants to advise on partnership issues. Individual unions are signing partnership agreements right, left and centre.
But there remains a need for something else. Employers and unions, companies with staff associations and public service bodies need somewhere to go to explore the partnership agenda. If only we had a centre for research, a place where seminars could be held without obligation, and a forum for managers and unions to learn best practice from their peers.
Partnership is a rare set of ideas that can leap the barriers of the industrial or commercial sector. One size does not fit all. Nevertheless, there are themes that reappear frequently. First, all businesses benefit from greater personal dedication to business goals. Second, that effort has to be freely given by individuals who have not had a severe attack of deference. Third, the best way forward for enterprise needs the expertise of the infantry as well as the field marshals.
Then there are the issues of representation within a pluralist context when not everyone agrees. These demand a new style of unionism where the role of full-time trade union bureaucracy is to work itself out of a job. We have to liberate local members and representatives from the ritual dance of collective bargaining and give them an independent set of competencies.
There are many other issues. Can only unions fulfil the role of management partner? Can senior managers set up a partnership relationship with their middle managers, or will they get ignored again? Can the cynics be defeated on all sides who are only competent to fight the class war over and over again? Will some companies ever accept that unions can add value in the partnership arena? It is time there was somewhere we could go to thrash things out. Is there anyone with the resource, political will, commercial skill and courage to bring British industrial relations into a new century? I hope so.
By John Lloyd
Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union