Date: 01/11/16 | Duration: 00:15:51

2016 has been quite a year for trade unions and employee relations. Teachers, junior doctors, train drivers and London underground staff have all voted to strike over issues such as pay, contracts, working hours and working conditions. News coverage has highlighted how important maintaining good relationships with employees and trade unions and HR’s role in this is critical.

In this episode we chat to David Widdowson, Partner at Abbiss Cadres and Jeremy Gautrey, Employee, Industrial Relations and Change Management Specialist about HR’s relationship with trade unions and the business, the common issues that can lead to disputes, and how to develop partnering arrangements to encourage greater agility and collaboration.

How do you maintain good relationship with your employees and unions? Join in the discussion on Twitter @CIPD using the hashtag #cipdpodcasts.

CIPD Podcast 119 Unions

Philippa Lamb: Not so long ago most HRs might have been forgiven for thinking they weren't likely to have to worry about industrial action but 2016 has seen a great deal of unrest.

News clips:

'Dozens of operations have been cancelled across England because of the first strike by doctors for...'

'Southern Rail and the RMT are heading for a new and potentially even more serious dispute - RMT members who...

'Well the Post Office is closed today because the CW people are on strike, there hasn't been a pay rise for our members since 2000--'

'Yet another strike started at midnight, three days of it.'

The NHS, the Post Office, London Underground and Southern Rail, they've all seen disputes on pay, working hours and/or conditions and the retail and higher education sectors have seen their share of troubles too. HR's role in building and maintaining healthy relations with the unions is key but balancing the needs of employees with the needs of their organisation is a testing business. So to shed some light I've been speaking to two men with a great deal of experience in this area.

David Widdowson is a partner at the law firm Abbiss Cadres and Jeremy Gautrey is an industrial relations and change management specialist.

Here's Jeremy's take on why we've seen so many disputes in recent months.

Jeremy Gautrey: I think it's probably [fair] to say that we're living in very difficult financial times at the moment and I think that that has had a pressure on the bottom line and employers are looking to maximise yield and that potentially does affect how people work. I mean many contracts for example that exist are being reviewed and looked at again and that may cause conflict within the workplace.

David Widdowson: It may be the case that there have been more days lost to industrial action this year but I'm not sure that the industry sectors in which industrial action is taking place have expanded particularly. We are still largely in the public sector, transport and you see very little evidence of industrial action becoming a feature in some of the newer industries or indeed amongst younger people.

PL: So you generally think this a post-economic downturn event as employers try to get themselves back on their feet and review pay, terms, conditions?

JG: No I think actually there's more of a move to modernise contracts, I think a lot of the contracts in terms that exist have been around for a long time and people are looking at what's happening elsewhere and saying well do we need to change? There's a desire to be more competitive and it's ensuring that the contracts that workers have are competitive in the current workplace.

DW: This is largely a drive to modernise, become more competitive and as we enter more uncertain economic times with Brexit looming and the environment within which employers are operating is likely to become even more keenly competitive and that will require an almost continuous process of change so far as the workforce is concerned.

PL: Where are we at on union membership now?

JG: Generally speaking union membership has been declining over many years. As we've seen the public sector reduce and greater outsourcing there has been an overall reduction in membership but of course that has led to a shift more towards the private sector.

PL: Membership's just creeping up in the private sector and it has been for a while?

JG: Yes it is.

PL: So shall we move to common issues for industrial disputes then because we've mentioned zero hours, pay, working conditions, issues around minimum wage, I mean what are the big ones do you think that are really key here?

DW: I mean as you will have seen from the doctors' dispute the process by which an employer wants to very significantly change contracts of employment and working conditions is one which is very fertile ground for industrial action.

PL: What about zero hours – a big, big area for discussion this year?

JG: Yes it is and zero hours contracts generally speaking there is a lot of bad publicity around them, they do allow people to sometimes be exploited but on the other hand there are many people that actually enjoy the benefits of zero hours contracts. So I think you have to balance it.

PL: Yeah I mean there clearly are pros and cons to those but I think they've almost become characterised as a bad thing now haven't they in terms of media coverage and organisations certainly almost, I think it's fair to say, get to the point where it's embarrassing to be using them and even if they work commercially, and even if you do have staff who might even be asking for them, it's awkward to actually use that form of contract.

DW: Yes I mean it's been very heavily politicised. It's been picked up by labour as a political issue: it's picked up by the unions as a political issue: and then by the Tories and the Tories have legislated to a very limited extent in the field but what you don't hear the trade unions saying anything about, as Jeremy said, are the very significant numbers of people, if you look at the CIPD survey for example, very significant numbers of people who are very satisfied with zero hours contracts and would not change.

PL: But do we think they'll survive?

DW: I don't see any political initiative to outlaw them like in New Zealand for example, I think that's likely to be a long way off and a lot might depend on what happens in the Labour party, if it's expected Jeremy Corbyn, he's elected as leader and if he were to win the next election I imagine some sort of legislation in this area would be quite high on his agenda but the likelihood of that is not great.

PL: Well no but there's corporate reputation to consider isn't there?

DW: Yes there is that's absolutely right yes, that is a different issue.

PL: But a pressing one.

DW: But the issue of choice I think is what I take from the CIPD survey and the various other stats that have been around this is it is an issue of choice. There are undoubtedly some abuses where people are compelled to accept zero hours contracts or have no work at all but equally there are obviously many people who are very happy with that as a system of working.

JG: I think we can get over-focused on zero hours contracts and there has been a casualisation of the workforce generally over time. Unions of course find it difficult to organise around that because where there are permanent employees it's much easier to get in and organise amongst them, where you have a much more fluid workforce that's more difficult. I think we want to be careful though because we can paint the picture that everything is doom and gloom, the reality though in a majority of areas that there are good employee relations between trade unions and employers and then on a day to day basis those relationships are beneficial to both the company and the people working in that company.

PL: Well absolutely I mean that brings me to the next question I had in mind actually which was the unions themselves and obviously Unite's by far the biggest, we've got Unison, how would you both characterise their approach in terms of negotiations and the interactions with employers now, is it different to what it was maybe 20, 30 years ago?

JG: I think that varies, that would certainly be my experience, I mean you only have to look at Nissan, for example, in Sunderland, the best performing production line in Europe now and that is the product of cooperative working between unions and management and it's an excellent example of that.

PL: Let me ask you about the TUC because obviously it's a federation that represents a whole raft of unions, how would you characterise the TUC's approach?

JG: I think it's very difficult to characterise unions because it depends on the industry. For example a union such as Unite has such a broad membership, some in the public sector, many in the private sector, in different types of industries, and generally speaking unions tend to represent the interests of their members and if their members are relatively militant then there may be greater militancy. On the other hand if there's not a back history behind that then they might be more willing to, or less willing to take action. I think the TUC historically has been the umbrella organisation for unions and has effectively represented collectively quite well the interests of those unions in terms of discussions with government and campaigning.

PL: If you're suggesting the quality of dialogue between unions and employers is sector-specific what can HR do to make sure that's as positive as possible?

JG: I think there are several key factors in terms of any good employee relation and that is first there has to be trust between the employer and the trade unions, they have a relationship where they can trust each other, that they know that someone's not going to pull something out of the bag and cause a different situation and discussion. There needs to be openness in that relationship, there needs to be respect, respect from the trade union in terms of the employers' position but also from the employer to respect that the trade unions are representing their workers.

I think one of the problems I've seen in core employee relations is that quite often the trade union sees the problem as someone else's problem. That's because there's traditionally been lack of stakeholder engagement between the employer and trade unions where it's like the employer's got the problem, no actually everybody's got the problem. So if profits are down for example in the company the company's got a problem but that affects the employees as well.

PL: So it's sharing ownership.

JG: It's sharing ownership and that comes from good early engagement, ensuring that where there are issues they're discussed early with trade unions, that there are structures in place within those companies to ensure that both sides feel they can talk about issues and they can actually resolve issues. But also ensuring that they don't take the baggage of previous discussions forward into significant changes. And quite often when there's major change in a company the relationship can break down because it's not robust enough in the first place and quite often employers look to say, 'Well this is what we want to do,' without actually recognising that actually there might be a list of issues that could be resolved with their employees so everybody comes out with a satisfactory conclusion.

PL: David.

DW: The flow of information I think is important as well. In the old days certainly my experience was that employers often acted on a kind of need to know basis and they would only disclose if there was a very good reason for doing so, whereas one might say that a much better approach, if one is looking at the sort of partnering arrangement that Jeremy speaks about, would be to disclose all information unless there's a very good reason why not and that kind of cultural shift is, to my mind, key to a successful relationship between unions and the company in the modern age and it makes companies much more agile and it gets away from the old adversarial approach to a much more collaborative approach. It doesn't necessarily mean agreement all the time but as Jeremy says everybody's basically after the same end, they want a prosperous company where people's jobs are safe, secure and rewarding in every sense of the word.

And I suppose one might say in the 80s and perhaps the 90s the return of reward in an organisation has not favoured the workforce up until that point, one might say the reward's more evenly shared but some of the statistical information you see sees an awful lot more being taken out by the owners of the company and there's less given to the employees. So that is a trend which I would suggest employers would want to try and shift, if they're going to look forward to successful employee relations going forward.

PL: So transparency, authentic conversations, we've also got legislation haven't we, changing the relationship between employers and the unions this year, the Trade Union Act this year, how will that change things?

JG: Fundamentally I don't think it's actually going to change the relationship much at all because at the end of the day if there's a relationship with the employer already that's not going to change because of legislation coming in. It will change how industrial action ballots are conducted and action is taken but ultimately it's not going to change the relationship.

DW: No I agree not significant. Nearly all the strikes that have taken place over the last few years would have passed the ballot test quite comfortably.

PL: So bearing in mind that the ideal scenario here is the avoidance of conflict and dispute and certainly the avoidance of industrial action what can HR be doing now to avoid difficulties in the future? We have an uncertain at least two or three years, probably longer, ahead of us in economic terms regardless of where people are working what should they be doing now?

DW: Well I think if there was ever a time to pursue a partnering style of industrial relations it's now. As you say there may be some quite choppy waters ahead, there may be lots of opportunities as well and the opportunities which arise are likely to be ones which industry is going to have to respond to quite quickly.

JG: I agree collaborative working together arrangements really can work and there are many examples where they have worked and I think it's important that certainly for HR professionals that they look at their structures they have in place for negotiating and bargaining with the unions and make sure that they're fit for purpose, they also look at the relationship that they have and quite a number of companies have gone for joint training of managers and trade union representatives and they've looked at behavioural competencies around what are good behaviours for trade union reps and managers. And those are things that all can be looked at in building an effective relationship.

But also I think it's thinking a little bit out of the box to a certain extent. For example if a company wants to halve the number of offices it has and downsize the number of staff there is that's clearly going to represent a threat to a trade union for example but sometimes you need to look at what are the opportunities that an employer can give to employees.

So whilst there might be less jobs might there be better jobs and upskilled jobs, relocation, better terms for redundancy to ensure that the employer gives a trade union a dilemma in terms of is there something on the table that's worth keeping on the table because then if you go on and take industrial action those terms may be taken off the table.

PL: You've both seen industrial conflict at close hand would you say in your experience that the HR professionals you encountered were equipped to deal with those scenarios or is there a space for more learning and development there?

DW: I think there's always more space for learning and development.

PL: I should say is there a need?

DW: Historically in some of the big set piece trade union battles there have been I'm not sure that either side had distinguished itself by its competence in those areas but yeah there's always room for improvement. But it's a changing world, that's the point, so it does mean moving away from, if you were an excellent adversarial negotiator in the old days, a hard-nosed type, you know, which Jeremy you would have seen many of I'm sure but that is not necessarily the skillset you need going forward.

PL: You'll find more about how to build strong, constructive relationships with unions on the website

Next up something brand new, ground-breaking plans for national standards on diversity and inclusion. What will they look like and what will they mean for employers and for HR? I'll be talking to some of the key players who've been meeting behind closed doors for the last couple of years to find out.

Hear all about it in next month's podcast. It goes live on December 6th.

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