From the TUC

What role for unions in the future of workplace relations?

12 Sep 2011, By Guest

Trade unions are the subject of a new paper published by Acas (written by yours truly – apologies for the shameless self-promotion) as part of its Future of Workplace Relations discussion paper series. In the paper I draw on academic research to argue that unions continue to play an effective role in representing workers, as reflected in the high (and rising) proportion of workers surveyed who believe that unions do an effective job, the constructive role of union representatives in helping to resolve workplace grievances, and the higher wage levels received by members than non-members.

However, unions face the reality of an increasing trend among employers to use non-union mechanisms for communicating with their workers.

This situation has been compounded by the development of a ‘single employer’ system of employment law in recent decades, which has served to make employers in unorganised industries more hostile to unions. Unions may have to demonstrate that they can ‘add value’ to a firm’s competiveness in order to dampen employer resistance. The unionlearn agenda presents an opportunity for unions in this respect, as studies have highlighted the benefits delivered by learning agreements for unions, workers and firms alike.

Unions also meet considerable challenges in representing certain groups of workers in today’s labour market. While overall membership decline has slowed in recent years, the vast majority of younger workers and new labour market entrants are not joining unions. The growth in short-term employment contracts, agency labour and other forms of ‘atypical employment’, and the trend among firms to outsource their non-core activities to other firms, have made it increasingly hard for unions to organise and create resilient labour standards across industries.

These new realities make it all the more important for unions to develop innovative organising and bargaining strategies. For instance, unions may consider following the examples of Unite, the CWU and others in organising around supply chains and using the procurement policies of large firms to influence the labour practices of their suppliers. They might also look at the strategies developed by GMB and UNISON for working with community and civil society organisations to reach workers in atypical employment that have proven difficult to organise.

As the paper argues, unions will doubtless continue to play a constructive and valuable role in representing workers, but the rapidly shifting contours of the labour market mean that their capacity to regulate labour standards in the future is likely to rely on the development of innovative strategies along these lines.

3 Responses to What role for unions in the future of workplace relations?

  1. Philip Pearson
    Sep 13th 2011, 2:49 pm

    ACAS has missed an opportunity to assess the contribution trade unions in tackling climate change through greenworkplace initiatives. There are few issues of greater importance than this, and many unions have risen to the challenge. There are probably over 1,000 such projects in the UK (LRD 2009) and plenty of case studies and good practice guides on the TUC website go to greening the workplace, and on the websites of a number of unions. The TUC’s report of its two-year Union Modernisation Fund (UMF) project, Greening the workplace, shows a wide range of imaginative initiatives, with the TUC supporting unions in a further seven pilot projects in some or all of the following activities: union green events, environment days and green fairs, including involvement from outside speakers and environmental organisations; trade union environmental training, including active discussions on the role and function of union green reps, facilities needed to carry out that role and ways to overcome the barriers to employee engagement on environmental issues; and negotiations on environmental consultations with management. We provide support through access to best practice case studies, relevant legislation and provision of an environmental reps education workbook. There’s a great deal of green stuff going on – as a quick skim through the resources available online will show.

  2. ACAS’s green blind spot? | ToUChstone blog: A public policy blog from the TUC
    Sep 13th 2011, 4:15 pm

    […] is there a “green blind spot” in the new ACAS study of the role of unions in future workplace relations? Have we failed to spread the word about […]

  3. Graham Petersen
    Sep 19th 2011, 8:21 am

    I agree that the ACAS document has a green blind spot. A document that fails to recognise the role of unions on climate change and sustainable development has a narrow vision of our role in future workplace relations. UCU is a union that believes this is crucial to an effective organising strategy. We have spent the last 2 years building the kind of ‘alliances with civil society organisations,’ mentioned on Page 8 of the document, on sustianable development issues.

    We have appointed over 100 Green Reps and have developed a fast growing network which is central to our role role as a modern trade union. However, we have found this ‘blind spot’ to be present in a lot of workplaces where we have members. Employers talk about ‘engaging stakeholders’ on green issues but then fail to engage trade unions. It’s unfortunate that this ACAS Paper is unlikely to offer much help in addressing this problem.