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Evaluating the role of the Union rep

The place and participation of union representatives in modern business and the private sector needs to be re-evaluated to ensure survival. Article by Stephanie Wilkinson, director at Solve HR.

In our experience, modern businesses and more importantly the leaders of today are alive to the business benefits of employee engagement and participation and the tangible business outcomes of taking a unified involved approach with employees.  Because of this modern leaders often see no place for the old traditional adversarial union relationships that images from the seventies conjure up, hence so few commercial businesses and SME’s today recognise any formal union.  Instead HR strategy is used as a vehicle in many entrepreneurial business such as Google, Pret-a-Manager and Skyscanner for driving business performance and profitability. So are modern leadership approaches making unions and there representatives redundant? 

In any redundancy situation, the role and its various components have to be evaluated and validated.  So what is a union’s role? Traditionally and in simple terms it was to provide a collective voice for the workers delivering the employee agenda of improving working conditions.  So is this ‘substantive role’ carried out by the management or HR function in today’s modern businesses, which in turn indeed makes the role of the union redundant?  My assertion would be not quite. Often there will be mechanisms for collecting employee opinion such as surveys, engagement cafés, exit interviews and the likes, but nothing that actually drives the employee agenda forward in a systematic impartial fashion. Or is this HR’s role? The main benefit of a union is their independence from the business. HR will always be paid for by the company therefore obligating them to tow the Company line hence presenting a clear conflict of interest.

The problem that unions have faced and still face today is the historic stereotypes of their role. Indeed my recent experience in a commercial environment showed that unions have still not moved on enough. A union representative did himself no justice by taking an adversarial approach and ‘talking and behaving’ just like a stereotypical trade union representative might be expected to.  If unions wish to survive they themselves, like any commercial enterprise, need to consider their strategic objectives and values and take a pragmatic approach to what a modern leader and modern workforce require. They need to show that they understand what the new Generation Y workforce need and expect from work and in addition the strategic aims of commercial businesses. They need to work harder to partner with enterprise, speak in business language and sell their point of difference to commerce and employees alike.

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