Unions, joint regulation and workplace equality policy and practice in Britain: evidence from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey

The impact of trade unions on discrimination and labour market inequality has been a matter of public concern for many years. It is often argued that, historically, unions did little to support the interests of women and minority groups. More recently, however, observers have suggested that unions have increasingly sought to prioritise equality matters. There is a growing expectation, for example, that they will actively bargain over equality and encourage employers to adopt equality practices in order to protect workers from discrimination. Hence, unions may now have a central role to play in advancing the equality agenda and ultimately helping promote a more inclusive society. This article seeks to address these debates by providing an empirical assessment of the relationship between unionisation and the adoption of equal opportunities (EO) policies and practices in British workplaces, using data from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey.

Some conclusions: where formal written EO policies are concerned, these are no more likely to have been adopted in unionised workplaces than elsewhere. This is contrary to the findings of earlier research based on WERS 1998 (Hoque and Noon, 2004). It would seem, therefore, that the gap has closed between the union and non-union sectors with regard to this issue.

A different picture emerges with regard to EO practices. Here, the analysis finds that a range of EO practices (recruitment and selection and promotion monitoring and reviewing, special procedures to encourage applications from (some) disadvantaged groups, and reviews of relative pay rates by race and disability) are more prevalent in unionised than non-unionised workplaces. A number of family-friendly and flexible working practices (job-sharing, workplace nurseries, financial help with childcare, leave for carers of older adults and maternity leave at the full rate of pay) are also more prevalent in unionised workplaces. The analysis therefore supports earlier research pointing to the greater uptake of EO practices in unionised workplaces.

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