End of marriage made in hell?On 24 Jun 2003 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Trade unions appear to be losing interest in partnership with employers,which is a good thingIn these days of smarm and cringe, it is always a joy to come across peoplewho couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of them. Take comrade Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union and posterboy for the awkward squad. He may have passed up on the emotional intelligencefranchise, but as Lenin once said, “you cannot make a revolution in whitegloves”. On the hard measures beloved by auditors, his numbers look fabulous.Membership is up by 6,000 since he took over, which is just under 10 per cent. His union has consistently delivered above-inflation pay increases through astrategy of aggressively pursuing members’ interests to the exclusion of allother considerations. They are out on strike at the faintest provocation, ensuring publicity forhim, his organisation and his settlements. And remember, he was only elected in February 2002. Then there is nice Dave Prentis of Unison: left-leaning, certainly, but nota proper ‘awkwardista’. He is currently pressing for co-ordinated pay rises across the public sectorand has warned strikes could be used to get them. With 1.25 million members andplenty falling away each year, Unison needs to recruit 140,000 people a yearjust to stand still. Last year saw a decent performance: net gains of 4 per cent. Yet, when theunion’s number crunchers analysed where this new blood had come from, they madea startling discovery. Some 30,000 of them joined directly because of lastyear’s national council strike. This finding is now feeding into strategy forthe next round of pay claims. Militancy is no guarantee of members, of course, but there remains “anhistorical association” in both the UK and the US, says John Kelly,professor of industrial relations at the LSE. “When people see unionsdoing something, they are more interested in joining; though militancy no doubtputs a few off, too,” he said. This may come as a shock to those who believed the future of trade unionismwas all about pet insurance, credit cards, lifestyle services and the odd tribunalpayout. But it is unlikely to be a surprise to anyone who deals with unions ona regular basis. I suspect the reason personnel practitioners were always so lukewarm aboutthe partnership vogue that became the dominant ideology of unions in the 1990s,was because they could see it could not possibly last. For many members, partnership was akin to digging the grave of tradeunionism with a jewel-encrusted spade. Why would anyone seek to be a member ofa union that sought to be a partner in successful enterprises? If you want tobe a business partner, surely it is better to invest in shares than shell outfor union subscriptions? Perceived effectiveness is the crucial criterion that people assess tradeunions by: the ‘what’s in it for me’ factor. Most employees – just 19 per centof workers are members in the private sector – do not join because they cannotsee what unions can do for them. The danger of partnership was always that members would find it impossibleto distinguish from passivity and demand their leaders start taking a stand. Strikes remain anathema to many; union members are principallyprofessionals, after all. Yet it is not hard to see why good-natured activismwith limited aims in a just cause makes people aware of the point of havingrepresentation in a way that legal victories never can. The significance of unions turns on their willingness to use theircollective voice. This, and disappointment with the Government, explains why itis now impossible to get elected to the leadership of a major union fromanywhere but the left. When Bill Jordan, of the engineer’s union the AEU, began pressing thearguments for partnership in 1993-94, he certainly made them sound compelling.Set aside the confrontational quadrilles, he said; they are blunting the UK’scompetitive edge. Instead, celebrate the shared interest unions and employershave in commercial success. Ironically, his tone wasn’t that far away from the gospel of HRM. “There is no more effective or productive tool than a genuine partnershipbetween employers, unions and employees,” he claimed in 1994. The problem was that employers and employees both started to wonder if thepartnership might not be leaner without that gooseberry ‘union’ sitting in themiddle. Employer and employee. Together in partnership. Both personnel directors and union officials that struck ‘modern’partnership deals – indistinguishable as far as I could ever tell fromtraditional collective agreements – were often fiercely proud of theircreations. The prolix trust-building clauses, the dutiful acknowledgement ofeach other’s roles, the delicate compromises over mutual sensitivities, wereindeed often a tribute to generosity of spirit. Yet communicating these agreements was tortuous. Were they really differentfrom the old ‘sweetheart’ deals? Can employers give ‘no-redundancy’ pledgeswith any confidence? Was there any point in joining a union that had limitedindependence from management? The era of rhetorical partnership may well now be behind us, and most HRdirectors may not be too sad to see the back of it. Trade unions are still a long way from being central to employmentrelations. That feeling may fade if more union leaders start using their newconfidence without due regard to the memory of Norman Tebbit as employmentsecretary. Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.