I spent the best part of my time at Legal and General between 1980 and 2000 as a trade union representative and was lucky enough to be a full-time official when partnership was at its height. Despite this, there was a constant stream of issues that had to be dealt with ranging from individual cases to major structural changes. With our solid partnership agreement underpinning every discussion, issues were resolved in a way that kept the relationship strong. How many organisations, for example, would bring their senior trade union representative into their confidence regarding a proposed takeover long before it became public? The purpose of doing so was to ensure that there would be a joint communication on every desk of the 7,500 staff on the morning of the announcement to quell rumours and concerns. Every member of staff was fully informed based on the facts and this was hugely beneficial in keeping productivity up. It also materially helped people to keep a sense of perspective about what was happening. I believe very few organisations would have thought to do that in the late 1990’s and even fewer in 2020.

I have been wondering how I would fare if I was still doing the job today. In many ways, things are not significantly different – there is still a mix of good and bad practice, particularly in relation to lockdown and the swift moves to instil home working as a response. Some organisations involved their trade unions early in these conversations and that, as far as I have personally observed, has led to far better outcomes for everybody. Others have not and this seems to have led to misinformation, misunderstanding and, in extreme cases, entirely avoidable fear amongst some staff.

What has changed, however, is the balance between good and bad practice leading to my own conclusion that we have gone backwards ever since the partnership agenda was largely rejected by trade unions. I work with many senior managers who are constantly frustrated by their trade union, particularly when they are having to restructure and cut costs to secure the longer-term viability of the business and save jobs as a result. Their initial thinking is often to find ways to bypass the trade union in their processes, but this will only serve to put the trade union on the back foot resulting in a negative reaction from them. I was always convinced that bad news was a complete last resort because the senior managers at Legal & General had put the work in to preparing for consultations and were open about the alternatives they had considered. Trade union representatives who are not so well informed, do not have that thorough knowledge and are not, therefore, able to explain the critical rationale to their members.

I also work with trade union representatives who cannot accept any change that adversely affects the membership in the short term. This reluctance to see the bigger picture and assess a response that considers the longer-term job security of its members is often driven by a political or ideological perspective. The reality of the current crisis caused by the pandemic, requires a trade union to abandon this ideology in order to focus on helping organisations to reach the right decisions at the right time. A perception that they will not do so has led to many situations where the trade unions have been marginalised.

If I were facing this type of challenge today, I would want to ensure that my organisation was fully aware of how the trade union would add value rather than hindrance. If you are not invited to the top table, it is almost impossible to influence and contribute. Without that ability, trade unions are witnessing many organisations knee jerk towards redundancies, as a result of the pandemic, that could have been avoided through a meaningful dialogue. Frustration occurs on both sides.

Perhaps the most significant change in UK industrial relations since I was a trade union representative is competition. Now, organisations can set up staff forums to hear the employee voice and, far from being a threat, I would see this is an opportunity. The stark reality in the UK today is that very few organisations see trade union recognition as a preferred way of hearing that voice, mainly because they would expect to hear only the voice of the disengaged. I had to learn very quickly that I had to present the views of all members rather than just those who had a problem. My observation is that trade unions have generally not learnt this lesson.  The failure to engage with people who have had positive experiences or those who have ideas to improve the business has meant that staff forums have been perceived to be a more reliable and positive employee voice. Yet, where trade unions are involved in these forums, they are often more effective. I would certainly be advocating that trade unions used the new 2% threshold in the ICE Regulations to get involved in organisations that would never willingly recognise them.

The real competition moving forwards is non-TUC affiliated trade unions who set out to act aggressively on behalf of their members without any consideration to a longer-term relationship with an organisation. These are a significant threat to the many trade unions who act responsibly and display good behaviours. In response to this threat, some established trade unions believe that they will have to start acting in a similar way to avoid losing members to them. This, in my view, would be a catastrophic mistake. I am convinced that the only way to respond is to reinvigorate the partnership agenda that secured a place at the top table for trade unions which, in turn, gave them the opportunity to persuade and influence.

This would, of course, mean compromises for trade unions that some of the more militant members would not welcome but, these people have never spoken for everyone and they certainly do not do so now. The simple question is, why did I see two organisations double their union membership as a direct result of working in partnership? For me, the answer was obvious – people generally liked working for the organisations and preferred people working together than against each other. If trade unions could accept that that they need to speak for that usually silent majority as well as the disengaged minority, I still believe they could flourish today as a truly positive force.

Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

[email protected]

07780 697024

If you want any more information on IPA's consultancy or training packages to support employee representatives, please get in touch with Derek to discuss how we could help.