UK: Nice suit. Is that the union rep?

UK: Nice suit. Is that the union rep? - Nice suit. Is that the union rep? - After 20 years in the wilderness, the unions are making a comeback - with a very different approach to business. Barrie Clement explains what management can expect from the new b

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Nice suit. Is that the union rep? - After 20 years in the wilderness, the unions are making a comeback - with a very different approach to business. Barrie Clement explains what management can expect from the new breed of labour movement professionals.

You can picture the situation. A manager is faced for the first time with the necessity of dealing with an official from a trade union.

The union representative, who invariably is a man, is about to arrive in the manager's office. Will he have calloused hands? Will there be gravy stains on his tie and will he reek of tobacco? Does he harbour an ambition to bring the organisation to its knees? What does he want?

How shall I deal with him?

It is a situation that could be thrust upon managers in the near future under a range of new laws, some of which are European but a large part of which are home-grown. By summer, Parliament will have passed a bill to enforce union recognition (for collective bargaining on pay and working conditions) where 40% of a workforce supports the union. Perhaps the most significant clause will state that every worker has the right to be represented by a union official in disciplinary and grievance procedures, even where there is no bargaining agreement. Managers have yet to take that fully on board.

Other laws from Europe - enforcing a 48-hour limit on a week's working time, for example - could also present unions with a role. After nearly two decades in the wilderness, unions are set to make a comeback - although New Labour likes to play this down - and managers would do well to gird their loins.

Apprehension, however, should be tempered by the knowledge that the typical union official has undergone something of a transformation. The 'industrial wing of the labour movement', as it is known by the disciples of Old Labour, has come a long way since the 'Winter of Discontent' in 1979, when about a quarter of the working population was either on strike or had been laid off because of industrial action.

The road to Damascus has not been uniformly smooth. There were the small matters of the national miners' strike in 1984-85, and the conflict at Wapping in which Rupert Murdoch fired 5,000 print workers.

There is little doubt, however, that unions have reassessed their tactics and strategy. Bearing witness to the fact are data which show the incidence of industrial stoppages at an historic low. Certainly the rhetoric has changed. In the 1970s, union leaders talked openly about slaying the dragon of capitalism. Instead, Mrs Thatcher nearly slew the labour movement.

Now, the talk - with varying levels of enthusiasm - is all about making capitalism work, about 'partnership' and about how employees' representatives can help companies enhance productivity. 'The concepts of flexibility, human resources management and life-long learning are now as much a part of the vocabulary of the union official as that of a personnel manager,' says John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society.

The innermost feelings of union officials probably have not changed as much as their 'mission statements'. Witness, for instance, the denunciation of boardroom fat cats as 'greedy bastards' by John Edmonds, leader of the GMB union, at last September's annual gathering of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Most union officials are in their forties or fifties and had nailed their colours to the union mast in the heyday of the 1970s. Since then there has been no great influx of young blood. Most of them have made a career out of the labour movement: Rodney Bickerstaffe, Bill Morris and Ken Jackson, the leaders, respectively, of Unison, the public services organisation, the Transport and General Workers (T&G) and the engineering union, have been closely linked with the movement for much of their lives, and so have the overwhelming majority of their subordinates. Even graduates such as Edmonds, who was at Oxford, and Roger Lyons, general secretary of the MSF union (Manufacturing Science Finance), who attended London School of Economics, have done little else in their adult lives.

There is little movement between unions, unlike in private sector companies.

If you start out as an engineering union official, you are unlikely to switch to, say, MSF, or the T&G. Promotion within a union often depends on securing endorsement by a key committee or on winning an election.

It can take years to get yourself known, so it pays to stay put.

Managers who believe they may have to deal with a union official for the future would do well to investigate the internal politics of the union concerned. A union official seeking election can be a difficult beast to deal with. He will be trying to make a name for himself. Management at the Post Office, which is attempting to introduce new working practices, noted that Derek Hodgson of the Communication Workers' Union became considerably more assertive last year, prior to his successful battle to become general secretary.

One of the wisest pieces of advice on dealing with union officials comes from John Monks, the TUC's general secretary: 'Don't underestimate them.

Some years ago I was told by a personnel director at Ford that even the doziest shop steward was usually a match for his line managers.' These days an instinct for negotiating is backed up by a thorough knowledge of the industry, familiarity with a company's profit performance and even a nodding acquaintance with its p/e ratio.

Unless you hit upon a wrong 'un, most union officials are not interested in fomenting industrial unrest. Their general secretaries - that is, their bosses - prefer to impress the prime minister with their organisation's commitment to moderation, rather than with its industrial muscle. In any case, lazy union officials will prefer a quiet life and the hard-working ones will inevitably regard themselves as canny negotiators who can strike a deal rather than call a strike. Having to resort to industrial action will be seen as a failure.

So how to deal with them? If your company reaches for its gun when it hears the word 'union' - the labour movement cites Co-Steel of Sheerness as an example - you will clearly not be receptive to the arguments of union officials. Perhaps you will rely on the legal system's seemingly infinite ability to procrastinate. Despite the best intentions of Ian McCartney, the trade minister who has drafted the new labour law, crafty lawyers may be able to engage in a prolonged filibuster. That could be an expensive course of action but, of course, the board of directors knows best.

Where a company has no such aggressive disposition, managers should make the best of it. By far the most intelligent way to do this is to get to know the union official with whom you will deal. Ken Cameron, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, for instance, is not averse to having a glass of whisky and American dry with management negotiators.

The person to target may be the 'lay' representative who is an employee of your organisation, or it may be the full-time union officer. It depends on who has the power and which one you find most agreeable. If you can afford the time, get to know them both.

A regular drink might be the best way of doing it, or an occasional lunch (the more upmarket the restaurant the better). You may even find that the full-time official is a member of the same golf club or went to the same university.

Most will have come up from the shop floor and will be eminently capable of dealing with the rough and tumble of negotiation. Jackson, of the engineering union, has surrounded himself with educated young men who act as his advisers, but he still believes that the sharp end of union activity is best prosecuted by someone who, like himself, has been 'on the tools', as they say.

'If you have to sell a lousy pay deal to a 1,000-strong meeting of shop-floor workers, you need to speak their language,' he says. Despite their ability to 'rough it', most union organisers will be just as familiar with canapes and Chardonnay as they are with beer and sandwiches. And, as Morris of the T&G points out, they will also have a far more sophisticated approach to their job than they did 20 years ago.

So what will be on the union official's agenda? Edmonds has advised his people to take on board the results of an unpublished survey he commissioned from the University of Warwick. It showed that new recruits to the GMB gave 'protection against unfair dismissal' as their main reason for joining the union. They rated 'better health and safety' as the second reason;'more pay' ranked fourth. Shorter working hours and longer holidays were of little concern, ranking 17th and 18th.

Morris contends that the bargaining agenda is being 'feminised', in an acknowledgement that females make up an increasing proportion of the working population, and that more women are taking up roles in the unions. He says 'family-friendly' issues and equal opportunity are far higher on the agenda these days. Morris argues that the key change in the attitude of unions is that they seek 'to enlarge the cake as well their members' share of it'. He also says that while the function of unions is to protect their members, their interests are 'inextricably linked' with those of the shareholders.

The engineering union has even set up a unit whose function is to advise companies on enhancing productivity. As Jackson puts it: 'My members do not work for unsuccessful companies for very long. The business eventually folds. We have to ensure they are efficient.'

Edmonds adds a note of caution for managers who might be tempted to think that a union could simply be a resource centre for management: 'The union organiser will want to work with the employer to ensure the success of the business, but be warned: they'll want to see fair rewards and fair treatment for the employees as well.'

John Cridland, employment affairs expert at the CBI, would also add a caveat to the idea that union employees will all stride together with management into an era of co-operation and high productivity. He believes that industrial enlightenment has not necessarily permeated from union leaders to shop stewards. 'There is a lack of professionalism in depth.

General secretaries will say emollient things about the impending legislation on union recognition, but then a company might receive a brutal letter from a branch secretary threatening to screw management in a year's time when it becomes law.'

One indication that the spirit of co-operation might have trickled down, however, was the reaction of disappointment among TUC members recently when, Rover's Walter Hasselkus, and then BMW's Bernd Pischetsrieder, stepped down. The employees and their representatives saw the two as straight-dealing men who shouldn't have had to carry the can for their companies' lack-lustre commercial performance.

Cridland points to a discernible map of militancy in Britain. He asserts that there is a difference in approach between the traditionally militant union activist in, say, Liverpool, and his more moderate colleague over in Greater Manchester. There can also be fundamental disparity between unions. Arthur Scargill, president of both the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the hard-left Socialist Labour Party (SLP), is a revolutionary with a deep suspicion of programmes designed to enhance productivity.

He sees state control as the panacea for industrial ills, and not namby-pamby ideas of partnership. Whereas 20 years ago Scargill could point to a whole coterie of allies among the officer corps in the union movement, today, his sphere of influence is limited.

The SLP only seriously affects the bargaining agenda in the rail industry.

Party members have managed to gain senior positions in the RMT, the largest union in the sector. The RMT threatens to bring London Underground to a halt on a fairly regular basis.

The SLP has also made a breakthrough at ASLEF, which represents train drivers, where the Scargillite Mick Rix has taken over from Lew Adams, a more moderate left-winger. In a move still rarely seen in industry, Adams 'went over to the other side' by switching to Virgin Trains where he now advises Richard Branson on driver training. Perhaps such transfers will become unexceptionable if the idea of partnership gains ground.

Attitudes will differ from industry to industry. Cridland believes the automotive sector has clearly benefited from close ties at senior levels between management and unions. He points out that Tony Woodley, a national official at the T&G, has been a key figure in delivering massive changes at car companies - Rover being a prime example.

Where else will we see more active trade unionism in the near future, and what forms will it take? Employers' leaders are not complimentary about the print sector, where the traditionalist GPMU is seeking recognition and where many companies are desperate to avoid it. The print industry, especially newspaper and magazine groups, together with stores groups, hotel chains and oil companies will be among the first targets for union recognition under the new law. These are areas where there is a substantial degree of union penetration already or where it is believed there is a fertile recruiting ground.

Any business which has withdrawn bargaining rights from a union can expect a knock on the corporate door any time now from a representative of the organisation previously banished. ADT Fire and Security recently acknowledged that it would have to 're-recognise' the AEEU after its technicians jumped the legislative gun and held a ballot which came out decisively in favour of a fresh union agreement.

There are signs that other changes are afoot. The ageing union officer corps is about to receive that much-needed injection of new blood. In order to ensure the 'professionalisation' of trade unionism, the TUC has sought out the brightest and the best among its young activists and enrolled them in its 'organising academy'. They are taught employment law, negotiating techniques, communication skills and business economics. They are also shown how to keep a jump ahead of management in case a company decides to go slow on its recognition bid.

So there is increasing likelihood that the union official about to knock at your door will be young, energetic, well informed and, heaven forfend, able to do your job.

Barrie Clement is labour editor of The Independent


- Don't underestimate them

- Imagine what it is like to be in their shoes

- Find out exactly how far your company is prepared to go

- Find out exactly what they want

- What are they prepared to settle for?

- Don't put all your cards on the table

- Do they have the confidence of their organisation?

- Do they accurately reflect the views of your employees?

- Can they deliver any agreement with their members?

- Make sure you are well-briefed on the new laws

- Find out where the union lies in the political spectrum.

- Get to know the union's internal politics

- Get to know your union reps

- Get them to trust you

- Build an empire based on your familiarity with this strange new

organisation that your business is forced to deal with.

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