THEMES – INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS
Unite and Prospect are two leading unions representing manufacturing workers and engineers. Tony Burke, Unite assistant general secretary, and Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary, discuss industrial relations in Britain today
Tony Burke: Unite is Britain’s largest manufacturing union, representing more than half a million manufacturing workers. From foundation industries such as steel, through to automotive, aerospace, science, chemicals, printing, and engineering, our members are the beating heart of the UK manufacturing sector. On a daily basis we work with some of biggest manufacturing companies and forge relationships with trade bodies and employer organisations such as EEF, The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and others.
While we don’t always agree on everything, we are at one and united in a desire for a strong UK manufacturing sector underpinned by an active industrial strategy led by the government. As the sector grapples with the swirling uncertainty of Brexit and all the challenges that it throws up, it is vital that this common approach between Unite, employers and their work forces is developed.
On the key issues of securing tariff free access to the single market in Brexit negotiations and a grandfathering of workers’ rights, Unite is in step with any major manufacturers and employer associations. Dialogue and transparency have been key to this unity of purpose as it is with successful and productive industrial relations. While it may be robust a times, without that dialogue a car maker like Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) would not be the success story it is today.
It was Unite members who a number of years ago made sacrifices to ensure the car maker had a future and who worked hard to make it the world beater it is today. Those sacrifices were made on the basis that the company had a plan for success, which workers played a key role in shaping through their representatives.
The understanding was that once the company got through the tough times, the workforce would share in the success. So it is only right that JLR workers this year will enjoy a 3.5 per cent pay rise plus bonus and an inflation proofed RPI plus 0.5 per cent in the next.
Trust has been the watchword in JLR’s success and so it will be for the wider manufacturing sector as we turn to face the immense challenges of Brexit. In the words of prime minster Theresa May it will be a bumpy ride, but it will be a smoother one if employers and unions work together to secure the future of the sector.
The temptation for a minority of employers will be to use Brexit as an excuse to try and trim workers’ terms and conditions or cut workers on the cheap to further boost shareholder profits. Such opportunism will be challenged by Unite.
A race to the bottom will only serve to weaken British manufacturing leading to a breakdown of trust between workers and employers. In a part of the economy which has a widening skills gap it will make the sector less attractive to the manufacturing workers of tomorrow and lead to a brain drain.
Manufacturing will not be able to thrive or meet the challenges posed by digitisation
and the rise of robots if the pressure is always downwards. Unite recognises this and in a world where skills are a premium is at the forefront of negotiating good quality skills and training opportunities for the manufacturing workforce.
Unite has worked with Jaguar Land Rover, BMW and BAE Systems and in the science industries to develop gold standard apprenticeship programmes. We’ve worked with the Sector Skills Councils, Semta and Cogent, to develop high quality sector standards for training and skills too.
This collaboration has been about ensuring UK manufacturing has the skills to compete and deliver a sustainable future in which the sector invests in its
most important asset – its people.
People, trust and dialogue between unions and employers will be central to the success of UK manufacturing in the years ahead and forging an industrial strategy which cements the UK as a world-leading manufacturing nation.
UNIONS BY NUMBERS
6,445,000 – union membership
in Britain, 2014
6,500,000 – union membership in
2.7 MILLION – private sector union
3.8 MILLION – public sector union
13,000,000 – union membership
in Britain, 1982
Mike Clancy: Prospect represents specialists across the public and private sector, with the uniting factor that its members are often in mission critical activities. They are scientific, technical, engineering, managerial and, above all, expert.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of our members is that they want their voice heard, in respect of employment conditions, personal advancement and employment security – but that they also know the best way to achieve this is for their employer to succeed and prosper. This means we need to reflect on how we bargain, that we understand the situation of their employer, and can suggest solutions as well as challenges.
This creates a distinctive rapport with members when we get it right, as their union is seen as credible and authoritative, operating in spaces that are not just in the conventional domain of terms and conditions. In fact, it helps grows the agenda, as issues such as performance and work-life balance are just as important to our members.
It may seem an odd claim but we are of the greatest value to employers where our membership is highest; where representatives are well-trained, and have the time to give evidence-based voice to their constituents.
Prospect has often argued to employers that the worst basis for sound employee relations is low density union membership, and an atmosphere where unions are tolerated but lightly controlled – there only for ‘sufferance’. For good industrial relations to flourish, there needs to be trust and time invested. Employers get the unions they deserve.
That is not to say there are not tensions, but Prospect representatives have deep expertise, know their companies – and know what works. Employers know they need to hear the independent voice and act on it for a better outcome. These are also sectors where their future in terms of government policy, investment profiles and skills are all areas ripe for union/employer collaboration and joint lobbying.
I often ask conference audiences of HR practitioners and managers, what do they want from public policy when it comes to unions? Would they regard zero union presence in the economy as success?
Few would want or support such an objective for public policy but posing the question focuses the mind as to what the role of government is in fostering conditions where unions can thrive and work well with employers.
Prospect is convinced that the answers to our productivity puzzle lie in reconsidering three decades of declining collective voice in the workplace. Atomised employment relationships, ‘Uber’ models and growing independent work styles do not form the basis for enduring and stable consumer demand.
Our best working relationships reflect clear understanding of the long term, are reciprocal and evidence-based. It is time for employers and unions to solve some of the workplace challenges together and try to change a policy direction from government that reflects nothing about best practice.
Fail to do this and conflict will not be eradicated by muzzled and diminishing unions, it will just take on new unpredictable forms. It will be technology-enabled and will show itself if anyone looks. Ostensibly people may seem to on message, but privately reluctant to give of their absolute best – because they know they are expendable.