When I joined the IPA in December 2000, the world of industrial relations felt very different to how landscape looks at the start of 2024. My background before I joined the IPA was almost exclusively as a trade union representative. My previous twenty years at Legal & General were not distinguished by a prowess for insurance (or assurance for those in the know) – I was always known as “the union bloke”. In the early years that was my notoriety; I revelled in adversarial behaviour and action. It took me many years to realise that I used conflict to mask a lack of confidence, knowledge and skill. Thankfully, as we entered the 1990’s, the word partnership was gaining traction and the role of a trade union in an organisation suddenly made sense to me. I had to work hard to convince the L&G management (and the union members) at all levels that I was a changed man, but I was proud to be part of the Partnership Agreement signed by L&G and Amicus (now Unite) in 1997. Whatever your political persuasion, 1997 was the year when politics and social partnership merged in a way never seen before or since, and my working life was shaped by it from that moment. 

It was my work as the full-time National Secretary of Amicus/Unite at L&G that prepared me for the role I’ve enjoyed at the IPA for the last 23 years. The trade union role meant that I had to upskill significantly in several key areas, business acumen, diplomacy, communication and strategic thinking. Senior managers at L&G (like Sir David Prosser, John McCarthy and Geoff Smith) helped me enormously to develop these skills. My union regional officer, the late Digby Jacks, taught me how to debate, consult and negotiate openly. I was able to use of all this knowledge to help to develop the IPA’s training offers that have, I hope, helped many organisations and trade unions to work in social partnership since. 

In the early 2000’s, the government’s partnership fund was a key factor in providing finance to support organisations and unions to take those first steps towards working together effectively. United Welsh and Unison remains the definitive case study led by a cast of incredible individuals (Dai Williams, Gareth Hexter, Tony Whittaker and Chris Rutson) who understood the nuances of partnership working in a collective way. They all “got it” and used disagreements and different perspectives to produce their landmark approach.

The decline of partnership working over the last fifteen years has, in my opinion, harmed organisations and trade unions in equal measure. Now the industrial relations landscape feels bleak. This is why Nita Clarke’s article in this Newsletter in January struck such a chord with me through my new lens of retirement. The reality, regardless of how the industrial relations landscape feels, is that the need for partnership working has never been greater. In one sense, little has changed in the last 23 years. As Nita points out, a good relationship between organisations and trade unions still requires architecture, time, opportunity, process, communications and appropriate behaviours. However, one other necessity highlighted by Nita was expertise. This is the area of industrial relations that has changed dramatically during my two decades at the IPA.

The rise of information and consultation architectures – in the form of employee forums and works councils - in these two decades has been the most significant reason for the decline in industrial relations expertise. That is not a criticism of these forums.  I’ve worked with hundreds of employee forums and, where they are effective, the concept is wholly positive and the best practice examples are as remarkable as the great union partnerships. However, where they are ineffective is when they have been set up as a so called “easier” alternative to a trade union, leading directly to disengagement and disenchantment with the concept of employee voice. There is still a great deal of work to do to help organisations to understand why they need to invest in training for employee representatives. Regardless of anyone’s ideological point of view on employee forums, it is their effect on industrial relations skills and expertise that has been their most significant and negative impact.

This negative impact has not been intentional but the number of people in HR and senior management roles who have no experience of working with trade unions is now a significant majority. Some argue that people no longer need to understand trade unions – to many younger workers they are considered irrelevant. My advice to senior managers and HR professionals is the opposite – trade unions are relevant right now and the importance of understanding them will become increasingly important. Ignoring or trying to bypass them is not an intelligent choice. Working with them will be imperative if organisations want to avoid conflict and industrial action.

To be able to do this, managers and HR professionals will need to understand trade unions with enough depth to grasp the nuances. Trade unions are facing serious challenges, particularly in trying to navigate the dual responsibility of negotiating cost of living pay increases while also attempting to maintain jobs in the post-Covid world. Like senior managers, trade union representatives sometimes make the wrong decision or communicate their strategy poorly. Mistakes and misunderstandings happen in industrial relations because all parties are under huge pressure – the real success of industrial partnership has been the mutual solving of problems, errors and those lapses in communication. This has benefitted shareholders and employees and has led to more innovation between organisations and trade unions than you will ever read in the national press.

I believe employee forums will continue to develop towards best practice over the next few years and the IPA will be pivotal in ensuring that happens. My main hope looking ahead is, therefore, that organisations and trade unions will step up to the plate and develop their own industrial relations strategy based on social partnership regardless of what government is elected later this year. It is not too late to do so despite how the landscape looks at the moment. Egos will need to be put aside – managers and union representatives need to educate each other and share their dilemmas to create a level playing field in all discussions. My own experience taught me that those dilemmas are remarkably similar. The IPA can play a vital role in making this happen if organisations and trade unions swallow their pride and seek the help they need.

And on that note, I bid a very fond farewell to the IPA as an employee. It has been a privilege to have worked for this unique organisation and to work with so many different companies across all sectors. There have been a great deal more positive memories than negative ones and it will a book for me to mention all of those highlights and the people who have helped and inspired me. Whatever success I might have achieved has been due to the constant support of the IPA team; Nita Clarke, Sarah Dawson, Lorraine Modeste and all of those on our former Executive Committee. Former colleagues Semsem Hassan, Mandy Caruana, Willy Coupar, Patrick Briône, Rob Stevens, Ramya Yarlagadda, Monty Bamgbala, Tony Burley, Joe Dromey and Hannah Jameson all added to the fantastic experience of working for the IPA. I also had the honour of working with two incredible associates Jasmine Gartner and Andrea Ryland who have gone beyond the line of duty in the last year. A mere thank you to them and so many others I have worked with seems wholly inadequate but, if I have time to write that book while fulfilling all of the musical opportunities I can now concentrate on, I promise that I will do their names justice.

Derek Luckhurst

January 2024