It is unarguable that trade unions no longer have the same influence or profile as they did in those antagonistic, strike-filled days of the 1970s and 1980s.
Fewer people are union members, the TUC conference could become a biennial event and some unionists are moving on in the belief that their skills would be better deployed in HR or in a consultancy.
The latest figures from the Department of Trade and Industry confirm that collective labour organisation is in decline and many employees – especially those in the private sector – are just not in desperate need of traditional trade union skills any more.
At our recent HR Directors Club breakfast briefing, Sir Richard Needham, currently director of Dyson and former conservative minister of trade in the 1980s, said that unions only existed because of management’s failure to look after its people properly.
Flip that argument, and the reduced need for union intervention must be down to management’s success in looking after its people well – a testament to HR’s achievements in fulfilling employees’ need for direct consultation with managers.
That’s not to say that unions are a spent force. Half of the UK’s employees have union recognition in their workplace, a third belong to a union and 40% still have their pay set through collective bargaining. The ranks of public sector unions continue to swell, while unions influence the shape of employment legislation and still wield substantial political power.
But if relations between boss and worker break down less often, unions need to define a new role for themselves. The formation of a new campaigning ‘super union’ could be a step in the right direction. But unions must adapt to the needs of business by focusing on skills, career progression and creating more workplace learning. In short, they need to update that old ‘beer and sandwiches in the local pub’ image or risk losing their relevance.