Research

Helping, not hindering productivity - Workplace union representation in the British public sector

The role of workplace union representatives has long been considered an important aspect of industrial relations in Britain, although not one without controversy or detractors. Since the late 60s efforts were made to formalise the role and duties of the representative; to integrate them into consultation and negotiation processes. Such recognition was seen as a step towards reducing fractious industrial relations and to improving productivity. Statutory backing followed in the 1970s which led to the provision of time and facilities for union representatives to carry out representation, consultation and negotiation on behalf of members.

This legislative support for union representatives therefore represented an acknowledgement of the benefits that collective representation could bring both employees and employers.

For employees, the representatives provide a collective voice by which the workforce can express concerns relating to working conditions, pay, training requirements and health and safety. Employers may be more inclined to respond to such concerns when put forward by a union representative than when expressed by a lone voice.

Workplace union representatives can also provide appropriate information, guidance and support to employees in the raising of issues and the resolving of complaints.

What may surprise some people is that union representative activity also has the potential to benefit employers. Studies show that employee morale and engagement can be improved by a management that listens to staff concerns, and union representatives help staff get these concerns heard and acted upon. As a result improved staff morale can lead to increased productivity and improved quality of service, all things greatly beneficial to an organisation's performance.

Workplace union representatives can also help organisations reduce the cost and impact of labour disputes, advising managers as well as staff to bring about swifter resolutions. Such exchanges of information can also lead to improved employment practices, reducing such problems as persistent sickness absence.

Analysing data from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, this research further explores the presence and role of union representatives in the British workplace, with particular focus on the public sector. It provides an estimate of the proportion of public sector workplaces that have union representatives, the ratio of reps to employees, and the proportion of public sector workplaces where union reps spend the majority of their time on representative duty.

The paper also provides an empirical assessment of the extent to which union representatives work in consultation with managers, thereby indicating the extent to which they could be deemed to add value to their organisations.

This research is timely, with the new Conservative government's concern that union representatives are too numerous in the public sector, too disruptive, too politically motivated and active. These concerns have led to the Trade Union Bill 2015-16, introduced on first reading to the House of Commons on 15th July 2015.

The bill promises "greater scrutiny and controls over taxpayer-funded subsidies to trade unions (so-called 'facility time''), such as full-time trade union representatives". However, this research suggests these controls could prove counter-productive, particularly with a view to improving productivity. Indeed it was found that that the presence of workplace union representatives in the public sector, who rely on facility time to perform their duties, is associated with higher levels of workplace performance, and that a large proportion of public sector management agreed that union reps acted with both honesty and integrity.

It was also found that there are only a very small number of full-time reps in the public sector and statistically no higher than in the private sector. Interestingly it was found that the lead union rep is more likely to have facility time in the private sector than the public sector, although facilities are similar for both.

Nick Bacon, Professor of Human Resource Management at Cass Business School said "Overall, the evidence suggests that both full and part-time workplace union representatives help improve performance in the public sector and that managers widely recognise this to be the case. As such, the proposed legislation to limit the amount of time union representatives can spend on their representative duties appears unnecessary and may reduce workplace performance in the public sector."

A working paper of the research is available for download at the link below. The Cass Business School press release is also available for download.

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