Many organisations have faced extensive employment relations (ER) challenges recently. These are only likely to intensify as the current incidents of industrial action show, with groups of workers ranging from barristers to transport workers going on strike. The CIPD’s latest research shows that the tight labour market, combined with a cost-of-living crisis and falling real wages, could be an ongoing recipe for collective conflict. 

These developments are a sharp reminder of the continued influence of trade unions, as well as the need for organisations to build positive employment relations. HR professionals and line managers need to have the skills to enable them to deal with conflict and manage collective relationships with employee representatives. It also means establishing voice mechanisms for communicating with the union and non-union representatives and employees at all levels of the organisation. 

Trade unions remain a powerful presence

The long-term decline in trade union membership and collective bargaining over the past few decades has been well charted. According to 2021 UK official statistics, trade union membership declined to 6.4 million in 2021. The proportion of UK employees who were trade union members fell to 23.1% in 2021, down from 23.7% in 2020. This represents the lowest union membership rate on record among UK employees for which we have comparable data (since 1995).

Prior to these 2021 figures, UK trade union membership levels among employees had risen for four consecutive years, mainly driven by an increase in female membership, and by a rise in trade union numbers among public sector workers.

However, our findings show that trade unions are still an everyday reality for many organisations, particularly in the public sector. When asked about the perceived level of union influence in their organisation, more than half (53%) of respondents said it was significant/very significant, only slightly lower than the almost two-thirds (63%) who responded as such in our 2011 survey.

We also explored whether or not respondents thought the influence of the union(s) in their organisation had become weaker or stronger over the past two years: 17% said stronger, 25% said weaker but almost half (47%) said there had been no change.

Cost-of-living pressures fuel collective unrest

The CIPD data, gathered in January 2022, offered a stark warning for what has now become a reality – that a lack of engagement with employee representatives will lead to strike action. The findings, from a YouGov survey of 1,075 senior HR professionals and decision-makers in the UK, show:

  • 53% of employers agree that the UK is entering a new, more unstable period of employment relations (just 16% disagree)
  • More than twice as many employers agree than disagree that employers can expect to face increasing levels of industrial action over the next 12 months (42% agree versus just 20% disagree).

The research also shows the positive role unions can play in the modern workplace. For example, the majority of employers believe that unions provide essential protection for employees from bad management (55% compared with 22% who disagree). 

Working in partnership

The research is a strong reminder that trade unions are still a legitimate influence in workplaces today and organisations need to take them seriously and engage constructively with all forms of employee representation. ‘Partnership’ between trade unions and employers is no longer always promoted as a modern employment relations model. But its focus on joint working, collaboration, and mutuality still has relevance. Almost six in ten (59%) agree with the statement that ‘working in partnership with trade unions can benefit the organisation’, according to our research. It’s not surprising that public sector respondents, presumably with more experience of working with trade unions, are more likely than those in the private sector to agree (72% vs 55%).

The findings – as well as our case studies – also demonstrate that employers engaging with employee representatives, especially in times of crisis, can yield positive results for both the organisation and its workforce. In fact, relations between unionised employees and their employers haven’t suffered during the pandemic, with almost half (46%) of employers in organisations with union representatives saying that their relationship had remained the same. Further, employers are generally positive about the employment relations climate in their organisation. Almost nine in ten (87%) describe the relations between managers and employees as good and many have worked in partnership with their recognised unions during the pandemic.

Our research shows that despite rumbling tensions between unions and employers, most employers recognise the importance of unions and are open to working together to tackle the big issues. No organisation – or trade union or its members – wants industrial action, and it can hopefully be avoided in most cases where there is genuine consultation and a constructive approach to negotiations. It’s important to build trust through honesty and direct communications. Organisations need to ensure a positive joint working ethos is cascaded throughout the organisation so that managers at all levels approach working relationships with representatives in a constructive way. That’s not to say that the current negotiating climate isn’t very challenging for many organisations, particularly in some parts of the economy.

Collective voice can complement individual channels

Having a voice at work can make a fundamental difference to people’s working lives. However, not all forms of voice are being used equally. Our survey findings show that over half (52%) of employers don’t use employee representatives to inform and consult its workforce, such as through a staff council or forum. The most recent CIPD Good Work Index also finds that individual forms of employee voice, rather than collective channels which use employee representatives, still heavily dominate in UK workplaces. This is a missed opportunity to use a collective voice to improve working relationships. 

Individual voice channels are very important, as previous CIPD research shows. But collective channels, that use union and/or non-union representatives, give employees a collective voice that can complement and reinforce individual channels. The CIPD’s research shows that this perspective remains as relevant today as it was over a decade ago. The evidence and expert insights presented in this report (including employer survey and in-depth interviews with employment relations experts ranging from HR professionals, specialist organisations like Acas and the Involvement & Participation Association, as well as trade unions) outline good practice principles for using employee representatives to inform and consult the workforce, as well as how to develop positive working relationships with recognised trade unions. 

Based on this examination, this report outlines the following recommendations:

  1. Ensure your organisation informs and consults employees in line with their statutory rights

  2. Develop a holistic employee voice framework that combines individual with collective voice channels

  3. Establish effective information and consultation structures and practices for employee representation

  4. Take a joint working approach with unions so they understand and feel part of the strategy. 

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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