I was delighted the TUC agreed to join forces with Personnel Today to conduct a major piece of research on the relationship between HR and union reps.
The TUC was as curious as us about the current state of play, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that HR and the union reps had so many positive things to say about each other. Of course, there were some notable exceptions, but hostile attitudes are isolated.
HR’s overall attitude towards union reps is quite practical and can be distilled thus: “If they didn’t exist we’d have to invent them anyway.”
The main day-to-day problems are around the issues of: communication, where union reps believe that HR withholds important information from them and interference, where HR feels that union reps get involved in issues that do not concern them.
But a bigger concern is the fact that union reps believe they are sacrificing their careers to undertake their representative role. From HR’s responses, it is clear that many view their union contacts as awkward and challenging – but most also display a grudging respect for their professionalism, effectiveness and ability to negotiate. These are attributes that would enhance anyone’s chances of advancement.
Without wishing to overstate the benefits of poachers-turned-gamekeepers, perhaps it would be sensible to promote more union reps into line management positions. The reps may then get to understand better the pressures facing their organisations, and the organisations themselves may benefit from passionate, knowledgable and well-trained people managers.
On the question of paid time off for union duties and training (which many reps claim they do not receive), under section 171 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, if an employer refuses to permit an official [of a recognised trade union] to take time off, or to pay for time taken off, then the official may complain to an employment tribunal.
Compensation may also include injury to feelings as well as actual loss of earnings, so tread carefully.