The big question: Have unions played a positive role during the recession?

Have unions played a positive role during the recession?

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director (people, policy and communications) at Buckinghamshire County Council and president of the PPMA:

Over the last decade, the UK has seen a reduction in the size and influence of trade unions. However, the recession gives unions a golden opportunity to develop a stronger platform for the future.

This is because, during a downturn, employees want the security blanket that belonging to an organised trade union can give them. Their biggest fears are quite often around job security. There is now the opportunity for unions to reverse the downward trend in their membership.

Meanwhile, employers want unions to show an understanding of the reality of the situation, particularly when they are negotiating particular points. There are some changes to benefits that employers will simply not be able to move on, so unions must be realistic about what points are worth fighting for.

I think some unions have been unreasonable in their approach to benefits, to the extent that they have actually put some of their members’ jobs at risk in the long term. For example, the recent pay award in the public sector for local government bucked the trend completely and, in my view, was a disaster for the members of the unions that were involved in negotiating that. It is likely to lead to job cuts in the future.

I think the role unions could play going forward is to work alongside employers to look at innovative ways of protecting jobs. British Airways, for instance, asked its staff to take voluntary breaks from service or reduce their hours. Unions should help employers look for opportunities to seize upon when the upturn comes, as well as decide how they want to work with them to build better working conditions and environment for their membership.

Lisa Page, actuary and consultant at Aon Consulting:

I believe unions can be an incredible support to an organisation revisiting its benefits provision. The view that all unions are firebrand is as outdated as the notion that employers are only interested in profit at the expense of everything else.

Indeed, recent economic difficulties have brought the objectives of the union and the employer closer together. Although previously their relationship was strained, employers and unions can now find themselves working together to achieve the same goals, namely, corporate survival and job security.

The vast majority of organisations do not relish the idea of cutting back benefits and are genuinely concerned about the short- and long-term impact on their employees. Feedback and buy-in from unions on any changes to benefits can therefore really assist in making and communicating difficult decisions.

In their fight for survival, many organisations have looked at areas where costs could be cut. Benefits can be an easy target because they can be an undervalued part of a reward package. But, in many cases, it is the union involvement that has resulted in an alternative cost-saving proposal being adopted. Unions have tended to support salary sacrifice and flexible benefit initiatives as a way to control the cost of delivering benefits rather than immediate cuts.

As we move toward economic recovery, this alignment of interests may deviate, although we hope that a retrenching of positions will be built on a new trust and better working relationships established in difficult times.†

Mike Emmott, public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD):

This recession has seen employers and trade unions behaving in unprecedented ways. Instead of declaring large numbers of redundancies when faced with cashflow problems, employers have adopted a range of alternatives, including short-time and flexible working, secondments and pay freezes.

Even more unusually, unions have largely gone along with such proposals, even if it means endorsing reductions in pay or benefits. Unions have done so because they appreciate that employees prefer such moves to losing their jobs. And they know industrial action will do little to protect members’ interests where organisations have their backs against the wall.

Employers recognise that unions can help to get across difficult messages and explain what is happening. Where benefits are reduced, this will generally mean a change in the terms of employment contracts. However, most staff will go along with such changes if they believe that refusal will risk undermining the business.

Successful negotiations depend on maintaining trust between employers and workers. Where trust is lacking, some employers have struggled to get union agreement. The recession provides a ‘burning platform’ that encourages increased co-operation.

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Where hopes of averting significant redundancies prove misplaced, consultation between employers and unions or other workforce representatives is required by law and can ensure the selection process is seen as fair.

As economic confidence returns, unions will no doubt expect some form of recognition by employers of the contribution that employees and unions have made to their survival.