Disputes between trade unions and employers have flooded the news in recent weeks, not least due to the threat of a tanker driver strike that would have had a severe impact across the country.
Strike action is often seen as a last resort by employees when negotiating with their employers, but it is nonetheless likely to be detrimental in both turnover and staff morale terms.
By the same token, however, many business leaders consider unions to be a nuisance and only have dealings with them if there is an argument to be resolved between them and their personnel.
But it is worth considering the fact that unions can help to achieve the best outcome for all parties concerned. So how can employers work successfully with them to strike the best deal for the business while also keeping employees happy?
Although trade unions represent staff, they also see the benefit of having a strong working partnership with employers. This is because a successful and profitable business is good for everyone concerned.
Unions can assume a number of roles in order to help build such a partnership. These include:
- Informing and consulting – This includes communicating on issues such as redundancies, transfer of business ownership, health and safety and pensions
- Representing employees at disciplinary and grievance hearings – Staff have the right to be accompanied by a union representative or colleague.
Although some organisations would prefer to liaise directly with their workers without any union involvement, there are a number of benefits that they may be overlooking. These include the fact that unions can:
- Encourage workers to become involved in the business – Consulting on working conditions and asking staff to become involved in negotiating employment terms and conditions are fantastic ways to engage with them which, in turn, helps to build up trust and encourage commitment
- Provide a single point of contact – Having one person to liaise with when negotiating terms and conditions rather than having to speak to each worker individually is much simpler and saves a lot of time
- Offer experience of working in other sectors – Because trade unions work with a number of different companies in a number of different industries, they often have a broad perspective on the issues facing an individual organisation and can prove a useful source, not only of legal advice, but also of best practice on HR and employment issues
- Provide third party representation – Although unions are there to represent employees, during tough times, it is important to have an external voice of reason in order to approach a situation objectively. This means that trade unions can help to persuade workers that change is necessary and start the negotiation process.
It is also important to remember that employees who take on the role of union representative are also taking on a huge responsibility, which can consume a lot of time and effort.
As a result, supporting them in the best way that you can is a must to create a good working partnership going forward. For example, allow them to use business resources such as meeting rooms and internal email systems and give them time out of their day-to-day role in order to train or hold union meetings.
But most of all, ensure that you continually communicate with them. Building a strong relationship means that you will be 50% closer to a successful negotiation outcome, which is likely to result in happier employees.
Heading into a discussion with a union rep if this partnership does not exist will inevitably generate a more hostile environment and less chance of a positive result.
Successfully negotiating a constructive solution with unions does not mean that employers have to give in completely to employee demands, but it can help to build a more successful relationship. For example, unions can often come up with ideas about how to introduce change or devise new policies which may, in turn, benefit the business.
Successful employers have engaged and happy staff, who will act as advocates for the company. And happy employees are more productive employees, which ensures a positive outcome for everyone concerned.
Richard Close is a turnaround expert and chief executive of industrial equipment services provider, Briggs Equipment.