The merest hint of industrial unrest always prompts an airing of that old
rock song, Part of the Union. For a time though, the turntables have been
silent. Having peaked with 10 million in the 1970s, union membership slumped to
below 8 million in the 1980s and 1990s as employment switched away from
manufacturing to services, and legislation curbed union power.
Now unions are staging a comeback. High-profile strikes by firefighters and
rail workers evoke memories of times past. So much so that Labour government
ministers themselves express public concern at an emerging new generation of
The Government’s fairness at work legislation has given added impetus to
union recognition. Today, almost two out of three public sector workers are
unionised, compared with less than one in five in private firms. Unions are
also central players in the ongoing reform of public sector service delivery.
The next couple of years might witness the most disruptive strike activity
since Mrs Thatcher took on Arthur Scargill in the 1980s. But industrial strife
remains far less prevalent than in the 1970s. In 2001, the UK lost 20 working
days per 1,000 employees to strikes – much lower than the EU (43 days) and OECD
(29 days) averages.
Even so, it is clear the employment relations environment within which the
HR community operates is entering a new phase. Some are understandably wary of
the possible consequences, yet experience shows that responsible trade unions,
working in partnership with employers, should be embraced rather than treated
with suspicion. Unions serve as an important channel, building shared-interest
relations with employees to help raise productivity and improve working
True, unions can at times abuse their role. The legitimate right of unions
to be recognised must therefore always be tempered by appropriate restrictions
designed to ensure they behave responsibly. In this respect the current
treatment of unions in UK law, as most recently modified by the Employment
Relations Act 1999, would seem about right.
The Government’s recent conclusion that there is as yet no case for
wholesale changes to the legislation seems justified, so long as employers
adopt the spirit as well as letter of the current law, and do not attempt to
exercise legal loopholes to obstruct recognition.
The overriding object for all – government, employers and trade unions –
must be to build upon the positive partnerships of recent years. At national
level, employers’ organisations should support Brendan Barber’s efforts as he
takes over from John Monks at the TUC’s helm. He faces a tricky task in
steering the union movement through interesting times ahead.
It is highly unlikely that the high employment, high productivity and high
public service delivery outcomes that the UK needs can emerge in the absence of
good relations with the unions.
By John Philpott, Chief economist, CIPD