There's no question but that industrial relations – and specifically relations with recognised trade unions – is looming large on the agenda of many employers, in a way that we haven’t seen for many years.

In large part driven by the ongoing severe cost of living crisis affecting so-called ‘white collar’ professions as much as employees in traditional ‘blue collar’ roles, trade unions are responding to pressure from members to secure the best possible deals on pay, particularly in sectors where skills shortages enhance employees bargaining power. In other sectors concerned about job security in our topsy turvy labour market the pressure is on trade unions to stand up for traditional skills and resist the relentless tide of change.

Many employers find themselves ill-equipped to deal with this resurgence of trade union activity. After years of relatively quiescent industrial relations, there is a lack of muscle memory in many organisations about how to conduct effective bargaining and negotiation.

And the upsurge coincides with challenging market conditions in many unionised industries, putting companies under pressure from both ends.  It is also true that some leaders have not helped themselves, by pocketing large increases themselves while urging restraint on the ‘poor bloody infantry’, as one trade union put it to me recently.

So the consequences for organisations that failed to nurture or develop the relationship with recognised unions in relatively benign times are coming home to roost. In particular, leaders and managers who failed to work at developing mutual respect and trust when times were easier, may now find it difficult to establish effective working relationships with trade union reps at the eleventh hour.

What steps can employers take to develop dialogue with trade unions?

Even so, there are some steps that can and should be taken by employers, post haste, to indicate a genuine desire for dialogue.


It is vital to have mutual agreement on the architecture within which discussions eg on pay take place. Both parties need to be clear on the rules.  Who is negotiating with whom – who are the key players? Where will binding decisions be taken? On the management side, do negotiators have to run back constantly to get a mandate from the leadership – leading to demands from the union that ‘can we talk to the organ grinder, not the monkey’. Equally, what is the decision-making responsibility of convenors and stewards doing the negotiating or do all offers have to be put to the membership? Do all parties agree what is actually up for negotiation – and what issues are for consultation.  Confusion over these basic rules of the game too often lead to mistrust and allegations of bad faith.

Time, opportunity and expertise

Do both sides have the time, opportunity and expertise to prepare their case, and explain the reasoning behind the respective positions? Is there a forum in which these can be explored together, perhaps away from external pressures.  On pay, simple assertions by management that ‘we just can’t afford it’ need to be backed up by evidence; similarly a blank assertion that ‘my members won’t wear that’ should be probed.


Process matters – but so does an ongoing culture of willingness to listen, and to respect mutual roles. Building trust between union reps and managers is no different from building other relationships – it takes time and effort.


Effective communication channels – formal and informal - are vital.  Can someone senior from management or the union simply pick up the phone when needed.  At the same time are there transparent and regular formal, trusted channels to address concerns and discuss potential solutions?

Is there mutual commitment to a ‘no surprises' culture, where union representatives are engaged in decision making processes and policy discussions at an early stage?

Are there agreed mechanisms for resolving disputes – eg mediation?


Does the employer demonstrate respect for the role of the union and its representatives, and acknowledge their positive contribution? Is becoming a steward seen as a positive, or are reps seen as trouble-makers?

Are agreements and commitments followed through, and the results reported to the workforce?

They say it’s never too late to make a fresh start. Trade unions will continue to play an active role on behalf of members in the months and years ahead, particularly if there is a change of government at the next election. In my view, it lies to a large extent in the hands of individual employers as to whether they take the steps needed now to ensure this vital relationship goes down a collaborative rather than an adversarial path.

Nita Clarke OBE

Director, IPA 8 December 2023

Nita explored this topic at the Employee Voice Hub Event on 20 February 2024. You can view the slides and video from the event here.