When we talk of unions many people may tend to think of collective bargaining and joint consultative committees. And when we talk of big change at work we tend to think of industrial revolutions (many commentators argue we are in the midst of the fourth one). But unions today are influencing working life in much more diverse ways; and this is because the changes at work we face are so wide-ranging and fast moving, both for the organisations and the people.

Take technological change. Acas and the IPA have recently worked together on looking at the impact that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is having and will continue to have on the workplace. The research shows that there are particular challenges to be faced around:

  • the erosion of job autonomy due to planning and decision-making being taken away from the front-line
  • negative impacts on employee well-being as a result of job intensification and social isolation
  • ethical concerns about how we programme algorithms to eliminate unconscious bias.

I was struck in the research project how unions so often played a part in the background in tackling some of these knotty issues – whether it be at Jaguar Land Rover in addressing automation on the line, or introducing iPads into a district nurse setting.

Many of the challenges new technology bring are to do with the permanently ‘on’ mind-set that is developing towards work and the drive towards integration between home and work life and private and professional worlds. Acas has always placed great store by the authoritative Workplace Employment Relations Surveys. So I was pleased to see a timely analysis of the 2011 survey by NIESR (Bryson and Forth, 2017). Just looking at the discrete area of work life balance, their analysis found that union strength is associated with:

  • better work-life practices at work
  • lower levels of job-related anxiety, particularly among women
  • lower likelihood of employees working long hours.

But change comes in many guises and we may be in the midst of a cultural as well as an industrial revolution. Acas held an event recently to discuss how to tackle sexual harassment at work. It was clear from the lively debate that a new sets of values were needed to change the unacceptable behaviours that have become normalised in some workplaces. It was heartening to hear from employers at the event who spoke of the value of union engagement in addressing this very emotive issue. I noted that they referred to their engagement with the trade unions on the matter as working in ‘partnership’.

The notion of partnership working between managers and unions isn’t new. It was a subject of considerable discussion in the early 2000s. Did formal partnership agreements involve a trade-off between negotiation and consultation rights? And how did agreements impact on general cooperative working and trust building?

Whatever the labelling, the core features of managers and unions working in partnership today include:

  • managers recognising (and demonstrating) the value of voice
  • putting trust at the heart of all relationships
  • doing the small things well – like sharing agendas, creating communication channels that work for managers and unions, and investing in training for reps and managers in working together
  • not shying away from the big change issues that need to be faced together (indeed, the kind of changes I have identified above).


The Acas Council is a good example of what can be achieved by this kind of joint working. We would not be able to produce balanced views on evolving workplaces issues and give practical, impartial guidance and support if it weren’t for the consensus reached by a Council made up of union, business and independent members. When people with very different perspectives and values are working for a common cause, it means that what matters most is the bigger picture.

We have a tall order ahead of us. I’ve spoken about change in working practices and behaviours as if the traditional employment relationship was here to stay. The 9-5, working for one employer in one place of work model may still be the norm for most people but it is fraying at the edges. Much has rightly been made of how dramatic technological change may affect those on the fringes most. It is certainly true that those on atypical contracts and in low-paid, low-skilled work could do without another reason to feel insecure. I know that unions are working hard to improve representation in those sectors characterised by the self-employed and workers on zero-hours and temporary contracts.

Two heads have to be better than one. Better the chance of addressing these questions if we have a cooperative relationship between managers, employees and their representative unions. These must be built on a commitment to voice and genuine engagement.

Sir Brendan Barber,

Acas Chair