When all the focus has been on the wave of industrial unrest of the last 18 months and whether it signals a renaissance of trade union influence, it has not been easy to be a voice asking whether this is the fundamental building block of a durable revival.

At the TUC Congress in September last year, Prospect argued that the priority for the Union movement is to address private sector union density over the next decade, otherwise the future in both public and private is bleak. I have been saying to anyone who will listen that 12% is the most important figure facing UK Unions, as that is  private sector density. Doubling that over ten years, still leaves big questions of representation but it’s essential. 

Now opposing employers who deserve that response, holds no fear to Prospect and many unions deal with workplace exploitation but that is not the widespread norm. People work to earn a living and to succeed and most employers get that and want to enable their workforce to flourish. Calls to join a union just based on opposition will have necessary limitations and that’s why the union offer must be more nuanced and tailored.

It was only 2018 that saw the lowest incidence of industrial action since records began and the 2022/23 industrial action wave is off trend. However, it does remind us of the latent power of unions and rightly so. The danger of the strike commentary is that we never see discussed how many disputes unions resolve or the work undertaken daily by unions reps across diverse industries, working with employers to make work better, solve problems and ensure safety and fairness. The metrics tell us that Unionised workplaces are ‘better’ workplaces, so let’s ensure we talk about that as much as strikes.

Moreover, the big issues at work are collective. Just economic transition, the impact of AI and technological change, global product markets and delivering fair and empowering workplace cultures. Collective employee relations exist whether a union is recognised or not and is more difficult to navigate without a credible counter party to engage with.

Where I can confidently say we can all agree is that recent disputes have suffered from the atrophy of negotiating skills on both sides of the table. Employee or dare we say ‘industrial’ relations has become a back water of the HR community where compensation, benefits and talent management hog the glamour. So many ER/IR practitioners I speak with know there is a dearth of these skills. Also, on the Union side where the ability to speak truth to members is as important as being their independent advocate and delivering their voice.

Despite the tendency for some to cleave to a betrayal narrative, the reforms of Labour’s New Deal for Working People can be transformative. Prospect is not affiliated but we do see Labour opening doors to organising that is then up to us and Unions generally to go through. But to land those reforms means we need to relearn the skills of the past; partnership is what members want to have their problems addressed and to avoid having to strike. Unions needs to be as known for workplace expertise, organisational design and fairness as they are for opposition. Employers need to realise that strong unions are their best counterparties and that labour market reform, and the restoration of rights is not negotiable and will not inhibit good business and making money.

If these reforms are to work, then they are likely to need patience and a focus on the art of the possible. It’s understandable that there are calls to build on initial commitments on fair pay agreements to press the case for sectoral bargaining. However, the idea that private sector employers will sit down together in sector employer sides is at best fanciful and worst diverts from the real opportunities. The recovery in the private sector will have to be based on organising at an enterprise level and Prospect will argue that improved access rights both physical and digital should be the major asks of a new administration, along with reforms of the statutory process to make the achievement of recognition easier. Employers should have less scope to defeat recognition, but the reciprocation is that they can agree arrangements that fit their business model.

There are no short cuts here. We need institutional reform, as there are so few spaces now where capital and labour convene beyond ACAS and the HSE. We need to rebuild skills and understanding and base that on long term relationships. Industrial strategy requires an accompanying employee relations strategy, all focussed to ensuring worker voice is not only heard when they withdraw their labour. There is another way, if we can grasp it.

Mike Clancy, General Secretary, Prospect 

January 2024