TUC survey assesses progress on equality bargaining

The latest equality audit carried out by the Trades Union Congress, covering 2009, assesses the progress made by trade unions on a range of equality indicators, with a particular focus on equality bargaining, where equal pay for women was a top priority. The audit reports a range of negotiating successes for trade unions, although the proportion of unions with up-to-date policies and guidelines on all the different aspects of equality was lower in 2009 than in 2005.

The fourth biennial equality audit published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – the TUC Equality Audit 2009 – analyses data on equality activities provided by over 70% of TUC-affiliated trade unions. Such activities cover 99.3% of the 6.2 million trade union members whom the TUC represents. The main focus of the report is on the negotiating policies prioritised by trade unions in their collective bargaining with employers, enabling progress to be compared with the situation in 2005 when the equality audit last focused on equality bargaining (UK0602102F).

Equality bargaining priorities

Despite the fact that most of the trade unions (72%) set their collective bargaining agenda at national level, deciding on equality bargaining priorities is a rather less centralised process and has become more decentralised since 2005. In 2009, just under half of the trade unions set equality priorities at national level compared with around two thirds in 2005. Most trade unions now have a range of methods for identifying key equality priorities, including: conference or executive committee decisions; recommendations from trade union equality bodies; discussions between trade union officials; membership surveys; and input from workplace and equality representatives.

In 2009, the single top equality bargaining priority was equal pay for women. Other top priorities were:

  • parental rights;
  • race equality;
  • combating the far right;
  • disability equality;
  • work-life balance;
  • flexible work arrangements.

These priorities have not changed greatly since 2005, although combating the far right is a new priority. Another area of increased activity for trade unions is the position of migrant workers – an issue which was not included in the 2005 audit.

Looking to the future, two further priorities were identified:

  • career and pay progression;
  • compliance with the public sector statutory equality duties (UK0703019I).

Some trade unions felt that it had become more difficult since 2005 to persuade employers to address equality issues, partly because of the harsher economic climate. Conversely, other trade unions felt it had become less difficult, largely because of changes in the legal environment, while some felt that the climate for equality bargaining had stayed the same.

Policies and guidelines

The table below compares the findings on policies and guidelines on equality issues from the 2005 and 2009 equality audits.

Proportion of trade unions with up-to-date policies or guidelines
Policy area 2005 (%) 2009 (%)
General equalities bargaining



Women’s pay and employment



Equal pay for work of equal value



Flexible working/work–life balance



Parental rights



Race equality



Dealing with racism and the far right






Migrant workers



Lesbian, gay and bisexual workers



Religion and belief



Age equality



Harassment and bullying



Note: N/A = not applicable.

Source: TUC, 2009

Negotiating successes

The audit identifies the issues that have been the most fruitful in terms of successful trade union negotiations over the past four years. The five areas out of the 13 items presented in the table above where the trade unions reported the greatest success were:

  • parental rights (51% of trade unions reported success);
  • flexible working and work–life balance (44%);
  • age (37%);
  • disability (35%);
  • race equality (35%).

On a less positive note, only 16% of trade unions reported successes in general equalities bargaining – these include agreements on the implementation of the public sector equality duties (such as equality and diversity impact assessments or race and gender equality schemes) and negotiated paid time-off for equality representatives to fulfil their duties. The former is identified as a top priority for the next couple of years. Moreover, at the lower end of the success scale, only 23% reported successful negotiations on religion and belief and on migrant workers.


The TUC equality audits provide useful benchmarks against which to evaluate trade union activity and the difference that trade unions are making regarding equalities issues. In a difficult bargaining climate, it is encouraging to see that fairly fruitful negotiations are taking place. However, the 2009 report shows a decrease in the proportion of trade unions with up-to-date policies or guidelines in every area that was covered by the 2005 audit. Dissemination of policies and guidelines are particularly important in the decentralised bargaining context that most trade union officials, workplace representatives and activists now face.

In terms of negotiating successes, although there are plenty of positive outcomes, the trade unions may be concerned about the relatively low success rate for issues such as migrant workers – particularly since the 2007 equality audit (UK0801039I) found that trade unions were devoting considerable resources to organising migrant workers. The trade unions will surely have to demonstrate a better negotiating success rate if they are to retain migrant workers as members, as well as to improve their success rate regarding women’s pay and employment (30%) to retain female members.

Gill Kirton, Queen Mary, University of London

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