The return of the unions?

Posted on: 27/06/2016

From the demise of traditional heavy industries where unions were strong to today’s proposed legislation, it may have seemed that Industrial Relations were a thing of the past, with many of the traditional IR skills not being called for in today’s working environment. However, recent events suggest that this may not be the case – the Junior Doctors’ strikes and the issues ongoing at Tata for example (not to mention the likely implications of Brexit?)

It all seems like a bit of a minefield – could we actually be seeing a resurgence in union activity?

And might the mass redundancies we regularly see in retail prompt a surge in union membership?

In this article, we speak to career interim Bill Gregory who just so happens to be an HR Specialist and an Industrial relations expert:

One of the best uses of an interim is to carry out a time – bound task that calls for a specific skill and expertise that the in – house team either doesn’t have, or lacks the time to use. Why keep a specialist on the payroll who may only be used infrequently – and, of course, what kind of professional would work under those circumstances?

One such area these days is employee and industrial relations – this can take many forms:

• Varying terms and conditions to reflect new customer demands
• Requests for union recognition
• Pay deals
• Complex restructures involving demanding consultations

These tough areas present challenges:

1. Expertise. No doubt an incumbent HR director would take on these tasks. Sometimes however, things can come out of the blue, or there is something at a local level that needs more of an additional resource, a heavy hitter with specific experience and expertise to come on board.

2. Time. Dealing with these issues requires immense planning and a carefully managed implementation.

There is also a significant amount of engagement that is needed with key stakeholders in the business – it is vitally important to have regular informal meetings with employment lawyers and trades union officials in order to be familiar with the environment and the law. A large part of the role is spent reading the legal case reports every week, and interpreting what the impacts will be.

3. Long term. Often these exercises can be tense and having someone in to manage them and then depart means that the long – term relationship between (say) the employer and staff, their union etc., is protected. That’s not cowardice on the employer’s behalf – that’s good sense.

4. Having one person project managing the exercise means a single, competent point of contact for the busy HRD. For example, industrial action can cause loss of output and have a major impact upon reputation. A skilled practitioner will work with the client’s communication team to contain these effects as well as to train managers what to expect and how to cope.

A good interim will aim to leave behind the result the client wants and to share knowledge and expertise with the in – house team. Good interims do not protect their knowledge in the way that (for example) management consultants might do, especially when using proprietary systems.

Bill points out that while some traditional areas of union membership have ceased to exist, where they are in place, actual density of membership is as high as ever (rail, transport etc) and that there is an increasing tendency for those in the professions (junior doctors being a good example) to take action.

There is little doubt in Bill’s mind that it has set a precedent for other groups.