Union representatives are good for workers, employers and UK plc

The findings of the joint survey by Personnel Today and the TUC will come as a surprise to those whose perception of the relationship between union reps and managers is still informed by the classic British satire I’m All Right Jack. While Peter Sellers’ humourless steward Fred Kite and Terry-Thomas’ devious Major Hitchcock make for great comedy, their portrayal of life on the shop floor no longer rings true.

Indeed, today’s union rep is a million miles away from Sellers’ outdated stereotype – a view confirmed by the HR professionals who took part in the survey. Nearly seven out of 10 reported that they found their local union rep pleasant to deal with six out of 10 recognised the professionalism of their local union reps and more than half of those surveyed agreed that their staff got a better deal because of the union.

More broadly, the majority of HR managers agreed that the “union is an essential part of modern employer/employee relations” (57%), and only 18% of managers disagreed with the statement that “unions are generally a force for good”.

The survey also shows that union reps are not complacent about their role, or the wider role of unions – some 68% of reps agreed that unions need to “redefine themselves in today’s society”.

The survey reinforces the TUC’s view that union reps are good for workers, good for their employers and good for UK plc.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s recent consultation on workplace reps estimated they are worth up to £1.13bn to the economy, and that their impact on productivity could be worth between £3.2bn and £10.2bn. A study commissioned by the TUC from Dr Andrew Charlwood at Leeds University Business School, estimates that union reps can help reduce voluntary staff turnover by 14%, and that unions also play a decisive role in reducing accidents and injury at work.

Of course, the survey highlights problems as well as positives. Nearly half of the union reps surveyed do not get cover when they take time off from their job to train or carry out their union duties. This can leave deadlines missed and put added pressure on reps and the people they work alongside. Hard-pressed reps are forced to undertake their union work in their own time – putting particular pressure on reps with families or caring responsibilities.

Likewise, a small but significant number of employers are still reluctant to support union reps to undertake the training they need to do the job properly. For the most part, unions and employers can reach agreement on these and other issues, but it is clear that some employers won’t do the right thing without government intervention. And far too many reps feel that their career is damaged by taking on the union role.

The TUC is keen that the government uses the review on workplace reps to create a stronger framework of support for reps, and to remind all employers that union reps are a key driver for fairness at work and organisational success.

Overall, I take heart from the fact that this survey confirms what I see on a regular basis when I visit workplaces up and down the country: union reps and managers working together, helping to create better working environments, and more successful organisations. Together, union reps and managers are opening up developments in the workplace – on issues including equality, work-life balance, lifelong learning, the environment and new ways of working. They have disagreements but, as this survey shows, the vast majority of managers see that reps do a good and valued job, and vice-versa.

By Brendan Barber, general secretary, TUC

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