How to work effectively with trade unions

With several UK sectors facing industrial action, Darren Maw offers advice for HR professionals on working with unions

The recent disruptions caused by trade union strikes have been compared to the start of the winter of discontent. Although the disputes haven’t hit the same scale as 1979, Post Office and airline staff, junior doctors and, most recently, train drivers have all taken union-led strike action in recent months.

Managing expectations

In the case of the action against Southern Rail, there has been an interesting PR battle to define what the dispute is actually about. Industrial relations are at their most disruptive for employers (and arguably less fruitful for employees) when the collective agreement governing the relationship isn’t fit for purpose; it often leads to an unclear relationship and different expectations as to what the unions should be involved in and when their agreement is required. This is compounded when trade unions control the communications to the workers and potentially seek to improve their own standing or powerbase.

Tackling these disputes without compromising the organisation’s wellbeing is key. Ask: ‘How do we want to work with employee representatives, and what outcome(s) do we want?’

Collective agreements

Understand what needs to be negotiated, and what the trade unions need to be informed of; these are two importantly different ways of working, and the distinction for employers is crucial. Many collective agreements were drafted in the 1970s or are based on old templates, meaning they are often out of date and irrelevant to modern businesses.

However, an agreement can be changed, irrespective of how longstanding it is. Even where an employer terminates an agreement, the statutory default position can be more favourable, giving trade unions an incentive to negotiate and an opportunity for a genuine ‘win win’.

When considering the agreement, it must be clear what issues the trade union can and should get involved in for a business to run effectively.

Organisations are usually reluctant to go to dispute for obvious reasons, but parties have an interest in change to bring new, better ways of working.

Getting to the heart of the matter

If it does come to a dispute, ask yourself if the issue at hand is of real concern to your employees or just the trade union reps? Is it a genuine dispute, or are the unions trying to score political points?

If it’s the former, the best way of dealing with it is through collaboration. For the latter, different strategies will be needed. Either way, your communication strategy is essential, and joint meetings should be seen as an opportunity to present your case professionally, so the merit in all parties’ positions can be understood, combating any misinformation or information that is presented in a biased way, even in good faith.

Where the dispute involves a difference of fact, or interpretation of fact, consider giving a joint instruction to an independent third party, removing the politics from the situation and allowing employers to proceed with business as normal. This is likely to settle the dispute or at least remove the support from the party that wishes to ignore what has been done.

In the instance of complex concerns or belligerence, or if you believe the union is attempting to push its own agenda, escalate the situation within the trade union itself where possible. Regional and national officials can often bring a fresh and well-balanced perspective to local politics to achieve a good resolution.

The right to strike is limited so, if the unions threaten it, seek careful legal advice. Often the employer’s position is much stronger than was previously thought.

In some cases, you just have to stand your ground. When dealing with trade unions, it’s easy for today’s accommodation to become the start of worse days to come.

Darren Maw is a barrister and managing director of Vista Employer Services