TRADE UNIONS MUST REFLECT THE SEISMIC CHANGES OR WORKERS WILL BE LEFT UNREPRESENTED AND VULNERABLE. AT A TIME OF DISRUPTION. DURING THE PANDEMIC, UNIONS ASSISTED WORKERS AND THEIR FAMILIES WITH SUPPORT, LEGAL ADVICE AND EMERGENCY FUNDS – INDEED, IT WAS UNION PRESSURE THAT LED TO THE VITAL FURLOUGH SCHEME. SO, A NEW ERA OF WORK WITHOUT UNIONS CANNOT BE CONTEMPLATED. BUT WHAT UNIONS REPRESENT HAS TO MOVE FROM WHAT CRITICS VIEW AS A DEFAULT OF SINGULAR INTRANSIGENCE, TO A POSITION OF AGILE, TRIPARTISANSHIP.
I have always stood by my support for trade unions, with all their faults, they have achieved more than any other collective association. Alongside the direct impact on the concept of the working life, they have also influenced significantly on the character of the nation. However, the future world of work is not just a new era, it is an uncharted universe, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no previous assumptions taken as read.
With a strike disrupted summer just passed – and now parents and students contemplating threats from education unions – clearly, there is a need for all parties to render the intransigence to the past. However, a representation gap has appeared in the workplace, with trade unions in steady decline. In 2021, just 23.1 percent of UK workers were union members, at a time when unions have a significant role to play. The real issue is not numbers, it is approach. I still shudder when I remember the time I faced off against a union leadership which declared: “I will see this factory closed before I accept your changes.” Thankfully, in that particular case, the workforce listened to me rather than their shop steward and we made the changes and the factory stayed open for a further fifteen years. We also bucked the trend when this particular industry was moving to Asia or Eastern Europe and continued to pump millions of pounds of disposable income into the local community. The reality is, we cannot hark back to a previous age and nobody in their right minds wants another ‘winter of discontent’. The future arenas of engagement and interaction will be even harder for unions than the past, unless they listen to their more progressive leaders and change their approach. It is no accident that politicians have spent decades passing laws to prevent a return to the dreadful times at the end of the last century, when millions of working days were lost to strikes. Couple this with shrinking membership numbers and a shift to individualism rather than collectiveness and we can see why we need all partners in employee relations to turn their focus away from quasi-political activism and refocus on becoming productive and progressive.
I was heartened by comments made by Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite, the UK’s largest union, when she said recently that this was: “A moment for the union movement to be reborn.” I understand that unions are under pressure to protect their members’ job security, but at a time when it is clear that traditional employment contracts no longer deliver for any party, a new era of disruptive industrial action is not an approach that will achieve anything other than discourse and a revival of the past unpopular reputation of unions. All this at a time when the UK labour market is booming and the great resignation has turned out to be a voluntary migration, as employees use their individual power to achieve their aspirations and career goals. Job security, whilst still pertinent in some sectors, has also become the catalyst for change, as individuals are ignoring these echoes from the past and talking with their feet, moving from one employment sector to another, rather than demand that their unions protect outdated and unnecessary jobs.
If the union movement is to be “reborn” – and I believe it must, to ensure the UK remains a leading hub for many global commercial sectors whilst protecting our employer/employee partnership – then we need to see a new focus to the purpose of worker representation. The future of work is too important to be something that workers will have to fit into, it needs to be shaped by them, but that won’t happen by accident. Unemployment is low, the private sector’s need for a wide range of professionals has never been stronger and skilled workers from every sector are in big demand. So now is the time to move away from political tub thumping and embrace the need to be exemplars of ingenuity and innovation in the setting of future employment standards that create behaviours that address; equity, poverty and the environment in equal measure, putting working people where they belong, at the centre of shaping the country’s economy. No clearer example that the past has to be rendered to history can be seen in Universities where there has been so much strike action, that it almost goes unnoticed except for the university students who suffer as a direct consequence. We need a new order that sees ways for everyone to come to the table, share and contribute, rather than industrial action that unilaterally puts employees that take action under financial strain, as well as the waves of disruption that ripple out.
In the latter days of my own employment, I saw the early green shoots of possible new ways of working for unions and employers, as I witnessed progressive unions capitalising on social media and employers embracing public debate, to ensure information was widely known and understood. The lobbying of directors, suppliers and potential clients of companies are all fair game in our transparent world, so that decisions can be made holistically. I also still recall with some pride winning over the local CEO of a large international organisation, persuading him to allow one local union official to attend our monthly Board meetings. I also remember that after a few of these meetings, he found them a lot more boring than he had imagined. Employers and unions alike must not forget the significant impact technology is having on employment and skills. Whether we like it or not, it is technology rather than management that is radically changing the world of work. Instead of continuing to fight and look for areas of disagreement, employers and unions should be uniting to call for a new Employment Relations Act (ERA) for the digital economy, to shore up organisational boundaries and workers’ rights in equal measure.
The future world of work needs staff representative groups that can rise to the oncoming challenges, groups that are agile, flexible and ready to collaborate much more closely with employers to accommodate the increasing pace of change. Digital disruption is striking at the heart of all aspects of the world of work, impacting on jobs and blurring – if not erasing – traditional definitions of workers and labour markets. But rather than reject innovation and globalisation, employee representatives need to work hand-in-glove with employers, especially local employers, where complex supply chains and employment relationships often make it unclear where the ultimate responsibility for employment terms resides. Together, employers and unions need to secure adequate worker protections and modern avenues for representation, whilst recognising that we are in a new era of work. If the union movement is to be reborn and make a real difference, it has to be both proactive and sensitive to the changing face of employers’ needs and expectations.
I look back at my interactions with unions and two people come to mind, Eugene and Stephen. Two quite different individuals from different places and times, they were respectively the right person for the right time. In the manufacturing industry, Eugene was the fulltime official and he turned up to every meeting in overalls. I am not sure if he ever actually needed them, but it fitted the environment and his members respected and listened to his profound advice, which I also did. Stephen worked in the public sector and had an approach to employer engagement that always began with thoughtful listening and detailed analysis of the information I shared with him. He managed his most vociferous activists with the same forceful demeanour he negotiated with me and consequently, never took his eye of the real goals.
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