How to Successfully Manage Trade Unions

I have two main areas of interest from an academic and professional perspective. The first is history and the second is HR and industrial relations. A common recurring theme during my professional life has been the existence, purpose of and my own direct interaction with trade unions. Indeed, I have also lectured at Bradford University Business school, which is a stone’s throw from the still impressive Lister’s Mill. Lister’s Mill is of huge importance to the trade union movement as it was here that a dispute here with the mill owner, Samuel Lister led to formation of the modern day Labour Party. 

When I was recently doing some private research about industrial relations I came across the following quote:

‘The great mistake in the minds of those raised above the working class is that they think the people want to plunder and anarchy. I know they want no such thing. They want peace and rest and their rights. They want to be able to go out in a morning, get a good day’s work done, and to come home with a fair remuneration.’

The quote above sounds like it came straight from the trade union movement. But it didn’t. These are the words of Richard Oastler. Far from being a trade unionist, Oastler was a staunch Conservative and manager of the Thornhill estate. A huge tract of land -still owned by the same family- who were on the winning side in 1066. Oastler challenged the abuse of children within the factory system and campaigned for a ten hour working day. He was later jailed as a debtor and effectively destroyed by his employer. Having integrity has always come at a price it seems.

Oastler campaigned for what could be viewed as core trade union issues. But he wasn’t a trade unionist. He was concerned with social justice and I feel a strong empathy with this kind of viewpoint. This does not make me a trade unionist either though. 

During my own career I have worked with numerous trade unions including GMB, PCS, Unison, Amicus (before it became Unite) Unite and many others beside. As someone who understands both working class culture and the trade union movement well I have never experienced any significant problems working with trade union partners. That’s not to say I have always agreed with them of course. Like employers, trade unions can get things wrong -sometimes badly- and a firm line is sometimes needed. But in my view employers and HR professionals have nothing to fear from trade unions. Even though the prevailing view often suggests otherwise. 

To manage trade unions and their representatives positively and effectively I would point to the following as important considerations:

1. Trade unions are not the enemy | Employees and HR professionals need to consider trade unions as partners who are essential to achieving a common purpose. Although the UK still suffers from a highly adversarial employee relations model -that is heavily influenced by a still rigid class structure- trade unions are far more pragmatic and realistic nowadays. Trade union membership has been falling since the 1970s and the fist banging approach to negotiations is now, thankfully, fairly rare. I do still occasionally encounter this though. It receives short shrift. 

By communicating effectively and outlining that management activity is driven by business imperatives, my experience of trade unions is that they almost always play ball. They may not like or agree with what is being proposed. But if they understand that the objective is honestly intended they will not oppose it. They can’t really as they run the risk of being held liable for any tort arising from disruptive actions taken illegally or without fair reason.

2. Trade unions contain mavericks too | As can exist in management teams trade unions also contain individuals who adopt extreme and at times unrealistic stances. By way of an example I was once negotiating a three year pay deal with a group of highly skilled engineers. Inflation was low and the client for whom we were all working had not only imposed a pay freeze but also a redundancy programme. A deal along the lines of 2% plus 3% plus 3% was therefore fair and sensible under the circumstances. A delay however ensued because certain trade union members wanted a minimum 10% increase.

This was never going to happen. But because the trade union leaders understood and accepted my negotiating position they brought their own mavericks in to line. The pay deal was duly signed and applied to all within the bargaining group as a legally binding collective agreement. A potentially incendiary and divisive issue was quickly resolved and put to bed for three years.

3. Management = privilege | In trade union circles the term of reference “management” is a highly loaded one. None of the connotations associated with this word are positive in my experience. Words like “owner”, “Human Resources” and “landlord” are also invariably viewed in a similar way. Trade unionism is (unfortunately) still often seen as a struggle between the working classes and the ruling elites. There is, it has to be said, some element of truth in this.

What then of a working class, self-developed HR professional from Halifax negotiating with trade union officials then? It has often made for an interesting initial meeting from my perspective. I have even slipped back in to a broad Halifax accent on occasion. When in Rome as they say.

Personally speaking I have no time for preconceptions based on ignorance. It is in my view basic prejudice like any other. Unfortunately if you engage with trade unions, wear a tie and have a management title you will sometimes have to work very hard to win trust and confidence. Once you do though trade unionists can be far more akin to allies rather than adversaries. In fact some of the people I have respected most in the workplace have been trade unionists. On the other hand I have found some trade unionists to be completely unreasonable and disruptive. 

4. Not all trade unions are the same | It is easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that trade unions are homogeneous. They aren’t. In fact the sector that the union is operating will have a huge bearing upon the role that a trade union plays and the agenda it pursues.

For example, in blue collar environments trade unions are often very traditional in terms of membership and objectives. Traditional employee relations issue like overtime rates and holiday entitlements will often predominate in these kinds of environments. In workplaces where there is a white collar bias issues of a much softer dimension often arise; it’s too hot/too cold, I didn’t like the way I was spoken to and so on. To manage trade unions effectively it is important to understand the working environment and the issues that create concerns for members in those settings.

One thing that is always common -irrespective of setting or trade union involved- is an core objective to preserve employment. In my experience this is probably the key area where management operational direction of travel will come in to direct conflict with trade union ambitions. It can often be a “never the twain shall meet” situation. Trade unions are much better nowadays at acknowledging and accepting that change drives change. Particularly where new technology is introduced. But the spirit of the Luddite does live on with some trade unionists.

5. Be prepared to concede and admit your wrong (when appropriate) | Trade unions and their officials are no fools. Their lawyers are also as good -and in many instances far better- than the lawyers instructed by employers. Take trade unions lightly at your peril.

Managers and HR professionals will either rise to the increased scrutiny of working with trade unions or fail miserably. I have always done the former. But mistakes do happen and if you try to fob off or lie to a trade union -and they find out- expect a very bumpy ride. You might never get over it.

By way of an example I have done a huge amount of organisational design work linked to outsourcing activity. Part of this has required large-scale changes to public sector terms and conditions of employment, including redundancies. On one occasion I was given incorrect calculations of public sector severance entitlements by my Actuaries. Although only one independent Actuary noticed the error it was clear to me that they were all wrong. The core formula data that had been used was flawed.

Rather than take the easy path and deal with just one case I resolved the issue for all affected employees. It created a lot more work for me that I could have done without. But it allowed me to resolve the matter with a clear conscience whilst also building trust and confidence. The trade union viewed the act as evidence of my personal integrity and a victory for them without even having a fight. It was a win-win and it cost my employer nothing as there was a pass-through cost agreement in place anyway. 

Trade unions are going through a tough time now. But with the removal of Employment Tribunal fees and internalisation of the labour market post-Brexit expect to see a resurgence in trade unionism and its membership levels.

The trade union movement has to get itself past the blanket view of all managers being greedy exploiters of workers. Similarly, employers and HR professionals in particular have to overcome their fear of trade unions and look to the positives that organised labour can bring to organisations in terms of achieving common operational goals. 

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