TUC's partnership agenda wins qualified support from government and employers

At a high-profile conference on "partnership" organised by the UK's TUC trade union confederation in May 1999, both the Prime Minister and the director-general of the CBI employers' organisation endorsed the development of partnership at the workplace but indicated that such arrangements do not necessarily involve a role for trade unions.

On 24 May 1999, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) held a major conference to promote "partnership" at the workplace and to showcase some of the more innovative of recent, union-based partnership agreements. The event was attended by some 400 managers, policymakers and trade union representatives. Of particular significance was the participation in the conference of the Prime Minister, the trade and industry secretary and the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), all of whom supported the spread of partnership arrangements though they stopped short of endorsing every specific aspect of the TUC's partnership agenda.

The TUC's approach to partnership

In recent years, the TUC has been advocating a "partnership" approach to industrial relations designed to promote improvements in employment security, flexibility, training and competitiveness (UK9903187F). However, in response to the increasing use of the term partnership to cover a variety of arrangements, some of which may limit rather than enhance union influence at the workplace, the TUC sees partnership as "a concept in need of tighter definition". A particular concern is that some employers have sought to develop partnerships directly with their employees - avoiding the involvement of "third-party" trade unions. The TUC has therefore been keen to emphasise that the key element trade unions bring to a partnership is an independent employee "voice". This, the TUC argues, can work to the advantage of employers as well as employees, providing honest feedback on management proposals and ensuring genuine consultation which is essential in delivering employee commitment and motivation.

A TUC report published at the conference identifies six key principles for successful workplace partnerships:

  • a shared commitment to the success of the enterprise, including support for flexibility and the replacement of adversarial industrial relations;
  • a recognition that the interests of the partners may quite legitimately differ;
  • employment security, including measures to improve the employability of staff as well as to limit the use of compulsory redundancy;
  • a focus on the quality of working life - employees want worthwhile, interesting and fulfilling jobs;
  • a commitment to transparency, including a real sharing of "hard, unvarnished information", an openness to discussing plans for the future, genuine consultation and a preparedness to listen to the business case for alternative strategies; and
  • added value - "the hallmark of an effective partnership is that it taps into sources of commitment and/or resources that were not accessed by previous arrangements".

The stated aim of the TUC's partnership agenda is to bring about a "decisive shift in the [UK's] industrial relations culture" by making a clear break with trade union militancy and "macho management". The TUC report uses case studies of nine organisations with partnership arrangements from a range of sectors to argue that partnership can be the basis for mutual gains - enabling employees and unions to exercise greater influence over strategic decisions and employers to secure improved organisational performance. However, TUC general secretary John Monks told the conference: "Partnership is hard work. It challenges entrenched employer and trade union views. All the case studies show that their is a need for patient, and often time consuming, dialogue. The demands of partnership go well beyond the usual portfolio of negotiating skills. For trade unionists as for managers, partnership puts a premium on facilitation, brokering, listening and consulting."

The TUC says that only a minority of organisations practice partnership and the TUC now aims actively to encourage the spread of partnership agreements, offering advice and assistance to both unions and employers seeking to develop such arrangements. The TUC is also reviewing its education programmes for union representatives to enable the development of the new skills necessary to make partnership effective.

Government policy

Ministers have repeatedly presented partnership as the central theme of the Labour government's industrial relations policy. At the TUC conference, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers said that the government wanted to help foster the "new attitudes and approaches" represented by partnership and announced that, once the Employment Relations Bill reaches the statute book (UK9902180F), the government would be making GBP 5 million available over four years via a new "partnership fund" to support projects aimed at developing partnership at work and disseminating examples of good practice.

In his speech at the conference, Mr Blair welcomed the TUC's promotion of partnership as evidence of the modernisation of trade unionism, declaring that he saw trade unions "as a force for good, an essential part of our democracy, but as more than that - potentially as a force for economic success". In his preface to the TUC's report, Mr Blair wrote: "I endorse the clear message of the TUC's report that Britain works best when unions and employers work together. This important new initiative exemplifies the willingness of modern trade unions to seek common ground with employers, to cooperate to solve shared problems and to improve the lives of people at work."

His speech, however, signalled ambivalence about the centrality of trade union involvement in workplace partnerships, arguing that many companies could reach partnership agreements with their employees and that unions needed to demonstrate their value in order to find a role.

The CBI view

CBI director-general Adair Turner welcomed the signs of a new, less adversarial industrial relations culture and said that the concept of partnership had an important role to play in workplace relations. However, he also stressed that workplace partnership could take non-unionised as well as unionised forms. He said that unions would often play a major role in partnership arrangements but that in the CBI's view this need not always be the case: "Partnership based on direct communication with individual employees, or on employee share ownership, can be equally important. We don't need to be prescriptive about the routes followed to achieve effective partnership."

Mr Turner also commented that while some partnership arrangements involve assurances about employment security, others "focus on training and skills, on employability and forewarning of major change, rather than on undeliverable job security promises. That reflects the reality of these approaches and the fact that partnership agreements cannot follow a rigid framework."

Commentary

This was the first time the Prime Minister had addressed a TUC conference since September 1997, when he delivered what was widely perceived as a critical speech urging unions to modernise (UK9710171F). Against this background, his positive remarks about the progress being made by unions and his broad endorsement of the TUC's partnership agenda were a source of considerable satisfaction for TUC leaders. Nevertheless, the government is not prepared to accept that the only effective form of partnership is that involving unions, arguing that it can work in both union and non-union settings. More widely, the contribution made by the director-general of the CBI shows that there continue to be conflicting views about the essential elements of partnership and its potential significance for UK industrial relations. (Mark Hall, IRRU)

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