Riding with the ‘enemy’

Unions are the HR professional’s natural enemy, right? Especially when they are all over the media vociferously criticising the HR practice of firms such as Gate Gourmet.

Not so, says Ray Fletcher, the new HR director at the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G), the airline caterer’s bte noire in recent weeks.

Fletcher, who had “no reservations” about taking on the newly created role, certainly doesn’t think of it as a case of gamekeeper turned poacher.

“I’ve had this posed to me a lot, but I don’t see it like that at all,” he told Personnel Today. “Obviously, different decisions are made by the employer and the unions, but both sides should have the objective of making a business successful.”

Fletcher joined the union in June after nine years as executive director of HR at Remploy – the government-funded organisation that finds jobs for disabled people. He had actually retired when the opportunity at the T&G arose.

So what prompted him to swap days on the golf course for days in the union’s head office in Holborn, London?

“It is an intriguing role and one where I think I can make a difference,” he said. “My view is that trade unions are good for business and can play a positive role if you work with them.

“I’ve always worked on that basis and I anticipate I will use exactly the same philosophy here as I did in my previous roles.”

That experience includes more than 30 years in the automotive and ceramics industries – heavily unionised environments where Fletcher was involved in a huge amount of change.

And he is absolutely clear about what makes change succeed – good industrial relations.

“Employee involvement is absolutely essential [to achieve this]. If you can get employees involved in how things are done – from a strategic level right down to operations – you will make a difference to the organisation,” he said.

Part of the T&G’s long-term plan is to grow membership, increase services to members and add to its 850-strong employees. To that end, Fletcher has a direct reporting line to the general secretary, Tony Woodley, and is part of the management team.

Fletcher said the people issues for a union were the same as any other organisation. “Communication, involvement, making policies professional and getting things into shape,” he said.

There is also the major HR challenge that will come with the merger of the T&G, Amicus and GMB unions, creating a new ‘super-union’ by January 2007 (Personnel Today, 23 August). Although discussions are still at an early stage, Fletcher acknowledges this will be “a huge body of work”.

All this might take up more hours than his current three-day week contract specifies. However, for the other two days of the working week, Fletcher is far from idle, with his remaining time spent working with Rehabilitation International (RI), a worldwide network that aims to improve the lives of disabled people.

He is chair of its work and employment commission and was recently in New York for discussions at the UN about employment opportunities for disabled people. His involvement with RI stems from his work at Remploy, for which he was awarded an OBE last year. And RI’s aim is clear – to get more of the UK’s 10 million disabled people working.

“It’s a disgrace that there are not more disabled people at work in this country. We have to do something about it,” he said.

RI has launched a global campaign called ‘Included at Work’ with the objective of doubling the number of disabled people in work in the next decade. In 20 years, it aims to have reached full inclusion, although Fletcher admitted that this was a “very tough target”.

Persuading employers there are jobs for disabled people and that they can contribute to the business is just part of the problem, according to Fletcher.

“Disabled people are twice as likely not to have a qualification as able-bodied people, so that is a barrier. Our education system can’t be right in terms of getting them ready for work,” he said.

Fletcher also thinks there is an issue with the medical profession being too ready to sign disabled people off work. “We need to get the medical profession to use work as part of their rehabilitation,” he said.

“When somebody slips into the routine of staying at home and not working, it actually makes it worse, not better. It’s better for people to be socially integrated and at work.”

Fletcher is in favour of the government’s planned reforms of incapacity benefit and welfare.

“The process of getting people from welfare into work is absolutely the right thing to do, providing it’s done right,” he said. “If we’re positive about it and say disabled people can make a difference at work, then they will go to work. If they feel it’s tokenism, then they won’t.”

Fletcher said employers and those in HR should adopt a partnership approach to working with the disabled community as, ultimately, everyone will benefit.

And the dispute between Gate Gourmet and the T&G at Heathrow airport highlights how important it is for HR practitioners dealing with trade unions to build partnerships rather than set out to beat them.

“It’s certainly not management’s prerogative to always be right,” said Fletcher. “I’ve seen some awful management decisions over the years, so I think it’s good for a union to challenge [management].

“If an organisation is prepared to listen to those views, it will make good progress. If it is not, then it will run into problems.”

Brothers in arms…

Tony Ayres, head of personnel at the Amicus union, was formerly HR director at the Highways Agency. He firmly believes that only by working in partnership can the unions and business drive through change. But he admits it has been a difficult ride.

Is it a case of gamekeeper turned poacher?

“I would like to think that the opportunity to work directly with trade unions has worked both ways – I feel I’ve helped initiate some broader ideas and styles while at the same time acquiring a greater appreciation of what people justifiably look for from the employer.”

How important is it to have a professionally run union?

“As trade unions have moved to embrace management techniques and styles which have not always been easy for traditionalists to accept, the need for professional support to develop them has grown. Also, as employers themselves become more sophisticated in trying to get what they want, the professional input into union strategies becomes increasingly important.”

How do you see your role?

“First, there is obviously an emphasis on providing advice and the HR support mechanisms to underpin the union’s objectives. I also see HR providing an internal consultancy service, particularly given the more proactive approach by unions to dealing with change management.”

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