EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

TUC promotes business benefits of unions to employers

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In April 2007, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) launched an information campaign, targeting small and medium-sized non-union enterprises, to promote the business benefits of union involvement. The move comes against the backdrop of a further fall in union membership. The TUC hopes that this marketing drive will encourage smaller employers to reach recognition deals with unions.

In April 2007, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) launched an information campaign, which targets small and medium-sized non-union enterprises. The aim of the campaign is to promote the business benefits of trade unions for such companies. It involved the distribution of 2,000 copies of a new leaflet on An employer’s introduction to trade unions (391Kb PDF). The leaflet was distributed through the official government service, Business Link, and regional offices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). It coincided with the annual publication of the latest union membership statistics 2006 (2.34Mb PDF) by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). These showed that union membership density for UK employees fell by 0.6 percentage points to 28.4% in 2006; this represents the largest annual decline since 1998.

Unions benefit business

The TUC leaflet emphasises that unions want to see businesses do well, since ‘a thriving, well-run business is good for the workforce too’. It claims that unions:

  • help employers communicate better with staff;
  • improve working conditions and practices;
  • help with safety issues, so that fewer days are lost as a result of work-related injuries and occupational illnesses;
  • organise training and development, including access to government funds and support via union learning reps (UK0305102F).

These factors, the TUC argues, help reduce labour turnover, increase staff morale and commitment, and improve productivity.

The TUC also points out that unions have a wealth of experience in employment law to help with the early identification and resolution of problems. The involvement of union representatives in disputes can also stop cases going to expensive and time-consuming employment tribunals.

TUC General Secretary, Brendan Barber, stated that recognising a union means being recognised as a good employer: ‘Good employers have nothing to fear from trade unions and everything to gain. Contrary to some of the myths peddled by the anti-union employer brigade, unions can prove to be a very worthwhile asset to any business ... In the last 10 years, over 2,500 companies have realised that working with unions makes sound business sense and have chosen to recognise unions. The TUC hopes that this marketing drive will encourage many more to do the same.’

Statutory rights

The TUC leaflet also refers to the statutory recognition procedures available to trade unions that have been in force in the UK since June 2000 (UK0007183F). However, it underlines that ‘the most common form of trade union recognition is through voluntary agreement’ and that this constitutes the ‘vast majority’ of new agreements made.

It also makes specific reference to two recent sets of employment regulations which, it says, are much easier for organisations to deal with where they have a union in place. The Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations that came into force in October 2004 (UK0411101N) introduced minimum statutory procedures for dealing with dismissal, disciplinary action and employee grievances, and provided employees with the right to be represented by their union. Also, the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations 2004 will be extended to undertakings with as few as 50 employees by 2008 (UK0502103N). The ICE Regulations require employers to adopt measures for informing and consulting with their employees on a range of business and employment matters, and provide rights for employees to elect their own representatives.

Commentary

The TUC has been promoting the business-friendly face of trade unions for some time, though mainly to large companies. It was an early champion of ‘partnership’, which it defined as ‘employers and trade unions working together to achieve common goals such as fairness and competitiveness’ (UK9906108F). In January 2001, the TUC launched a Partnership Institute to provide advice and support to unions and employers. It also argues that union presence is associated with ‘high-performance work practices’ such as training, functional flexibility and employee involvement.

This latest initiative represents an attempt to reach out to smaller employers, where union presence is particularly weak. Realistically, however, it is unlikely to stimulate significant demand from small employers for help from what are advertised as sophisticated and pro-business unions. First, employer impressions are also framed by local experience and the strategies of individual unions, which include organising campaigns based around workplace problems. Secondly, many small enterprises are also hostile to unions because of economic vulnerability and an authoritarian management style, or because unions are seen as unnecessary in the more paternalistic companies. Thirdly, much recent employment regulation seems to have bypassed smaller businesses (UK0310105F), thereby offering unions little by way of a platform for membership growth and recognition.

James Arrowsmith, IRRU, University of Warwick

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