Employee engagement has become an increasingly important aspect of the employment relations landscape over recent years. Within the trade union movement, we are acutely aware of the importance of making working people’s voices heard, and it is one of the fundamental reasons that people join a union. Employers, too, are identifying the link between employee engagement and improved productivity, as the evidence for this is very clear.

However, under the current government’s policies, the balance of power has shifted ever further away from the worker, and I believe that this has been to the detriment, not only of workers, but of the economy as a whole. With weakened redundancy consultation legislation, and the introduction of employment tribunal fees, the avenues for employees to seek a level playing field with their employer are being undermined from all directions. In order to combat this, it is more important than ever that we seek a joint commitment from businesses to open and transparent communication.

Many employers recognise that the best route to employee engagement is consultation and collective bargaining with an independent trade union. The breakthrough partnership agreement which Usdaw signed with Tesco in 1998 is the UK’s largest private sector trade union agreement, covering more than 300,000 staff in 3,000 stores across the UK.

At the core of the Tesco Partnership are staff forums, in which Usdaw plays an integral part. The forums are structured at store, regional and national level and are considered a vital part of the running of the business. Union representatives have been pivotal in helping the business to deal with the challenges that have come its way over the years, from sickness absence to scheduling, by being closely involved throughout the change process, and raising issues at the earliest opportunity via the forums. This gives Tesco invaluable shop floor feedback on its business strategy, and a joint approach to problem solving. The transparency of the structure, and the involvement of the union, lends legitimacy to the process, which helps staff to feel that they have a genuine voice at all levels.

One situation where worker voice is especially important is when there is a threat of redundancy. The consultation framework on redundancies has also been cut back, with the minimum consultation period reduced to 45 days for large-scale redundancies, and 30 days for smaller-scale redundancies. The government claimed that this would increase flexibility for businesses, but our experience as worker representatives tells us that the opposite is true. A meaningful consultation process has benefits for both employers and employees. This was very much in evidence during the recession, when there were many cases of co-operation between workers and employers, to reach a less drastic solution than mass cutbacks. Through the consultation process, unions were able to negotiate agreements that preserved jobs, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

By genuinely engaging with the consultative process, employers can have their eyes opened to new and alternative strategies to redundancy. A recent example of this was a food manufacturing company who announced that they needed to cut 140 jobs. Through early and meaningful discussions with Usdaw about alternatives, and an open minded approach, the company was able to reduce the number of job losses to 79, all of which were met through voluntary redundancies.

The Information and Consultation Regulations, and European Works Council structures, provide a general statutory framework for consultation. Unfortunately, the warm words and good intentions behind this framework have not translated into tangible results for most workplaces, and they have not been taken up with enthusiasm by a great deal of employers.

In an ideal world, employers would engage with unions voluntarily. However, this is not always the case. There is a legal solution which unions can seek through the statutory recognition process. However, unions have to achieve 10% membership before we can even hold a recognition ballot, and a 40% vote of the entire workforce in favour of union recognition – this is an extremely difficult hurdle to overcome if you are dealing with an anti-union employer, particularly in larger companies.

Ideally, we would always seek to avoid having to resort to legal redress, whether that’s tribunal cases or statutory recognition, because it is in everybody’s best interests to resolve issues by agreements wherever possible. However, there is still a perception in some quarters that the trade unions are simply an add-on to the consultative process, or indeed that we are not necessary at all, with staff forums filling the gap where union-led committees once operated. An employer who claims that workplace democracy can be achieved without full and independent trade union representation, or collective bargaining, is at best naïve, and at worst disingenuous.

Usdaw has sought recognition with a number of employers who tell us that they do not need unions because they have staff forums. However, our members repeatedly tell us that representatives in those forums, who are not backed by a union, cannot raise the issues that they want to have heard, for fear of it affecting their own status within the organisation – a valid concern, since they lack the legal protections afforded to trade union representatives. Some employers contend that well-trained and competent managers will engage effectively with workers on an individual basis, and that this is sufficient. This approach fails to recognise the crucial role that trade unions can play in helping businesses to get things right for their people at every level, from national, strategic planning, right down to local representation in the workplace.

With the current level of debate, there is a real opportunity to move forwards towards better employee engagement, in both the public and private sectors. The benefits of this for workers, employers and the economy are obvious. However, if there is to be genuine engagement and not simply lip service to the concept, we must be careful that strong, independent trade union representation is not circumvented in the process.

John Hannett is General Secretary of Usdaw