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Do unions still work?

Recent industrial disputes have propelled the trade union movement back into the media spotlight but with mixed outcomes. So will the officials eventually lose their voice or will HR be negotiating with them for many years to come?

A trade union is locked in talks with the owner of a Scottish oil refinery. The reason: a dispute over pay and pensions. The threat: plant closure and mass redundancies. It sounds like an incident from the industrial dispute heyday of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, this was two months ago.

Ineos, the owner of Grangemouth oil refinery, gave trade union Unite an ultimatum: agree to new conditions on pay and pensions, or we'll shut the refinery. Two days later Unite acceded to the company's demands, but said that its members had been, in effect, "bullied into agreement".

The wrangling between Ineos and Unite over Grangemouth was headline news, but it wasn't an isolated incident. This year has seen several other disputes flare up between unions and big companies, and unions and the Government. We've had teachers striking over pay and pensions, strikes at the Royal Mail, strikes at London Transport, strikes at fire brigades around the country, and unions taking the Government to task over employment tribunal fees and zero-hours contracts.

Looking at that list, it seems the trade union movement is alive and kicking. But is this really the case? Union membership has been declining steadily since the late 1970s. Research published earlier this year by the CIPD showed that trade union membership had dropped to 6.5 million in 2012, from a peak of 13 million in 1979.

However, as the examples above prove, unions seem to be having no trouble making their voices heard, due in part to what they perceive as increasing attacks on workers' rights and pay freezes in the public sector. Darren Hockaday, HR director at the heavily unionised London Overground (LOROL), points out that issues like tribunal fees and zero-hours contracts give unions "a lot to fight for" in today's workplace.

In fact, despite the overall decline, CIPD research showed that between 2011 and 2012 union membership kept pace with the increase in the number of UK employees. Membership rates also remained stable last year, with 26% of the UK workforce belonging to a union.

What has changed - the CIPD study claimed - is the evolution of the workplace to a more individualistic entity, with less focus on the collective voice. Add this trend to the overall decline in union membership, and it seems fair to ask: do unions have anything near the influence they once had? And is the end in sight for the traditional trade union?

Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), believes it could be. He says unions need to change fast if they are to have any influence in the modern workplace.

"The problem with unions is they have a very rose-tinted view of employment," he says. "They look at it as if it's the 1950s, where 99% of people were on full-time permanent contracts. But if you look at the workforce today you have more than eight million people working part-time, 1.1 million temporary workers and four million self-employed people. These people don't see themselves as having any kind of relationship with trade unions - so what do the unions do? They argue against all those types of employment practices.

"Unions are no longer essential but they do exist."

Paul Nowak, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), unsurprisingly takes a different view. He believes not only that unions are "here to stay", but that there has never been a more important time for their influence. "Thanks to the Government's continued attack on workers' rights and its backing of big corporations, I expect union influence to keep growing," he says. "The reality is the TUC has been around since 1868 and, even with the current Government, union membership remains strong."

Nowak takes umbrage with the way the media often represent unions, adding there is more to what they do than striking and disrupting businesses. "We work closely with HR departments within business about a range of issues," he says.

Nowak says governments needs to see unions as more than just opportunities for political point-scoring, and that economic uncertainty makes unions even more important in business. "Employees don't have a strong voice, and the current Government is trying to diminish that further," he says. "Initiatives such as worker representation on boards could change this. People are seeing the importance of the employee voice. With many people disengaging from mainstream politics, unions can keep them interested and help build a better economy."

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), claims "declining numbers doesn't mean a decline in power". "The decline is down to both the defeat of the miners and the Wapping [print workers] strike in the 1980s and the surge in jobs in sectors like telecommunications," he adds.

The CWU represented thousands of Royal Mail workers during the recent privatisation - an example, says Hayes, of the influence unions still wield. "If we weren't there as part of the negotiations, business and Government wouldn't have given workers, some of whom have worked for the Royal Mail for years, what they were entitled to," he explains.

However, Green, who is a former HR director of Royal Mail, has a different view. "I led the pay negotiations in 2007 and they were extremely difficult to deal with," he recalls. "They were constantly fighting a rearguard action against modernisation and change at a time when the business was losing nearly a million pounds a day."

If unions are, as Nowak and Hayes predict, here to stay, the relationship between them and the HR director is naturally critical. According to LOROL's Hockaday, HR has an "extremely key role" to play in maintain good relations.

"If union influence declined, it would definitely make [the HR director's] role easier," he says. "But there is no doubt a union enhances workers' terms and conditions through their negotiating powers.

"Working closely with union representatives you do get to hear more from the employees' perspective, but it's up to HR to know its employees as well as the unions do."

He adds that any HR practitioner moving into a heavily unionised industry such as his must realise that union influence will be around for a while longer.

"In the railways we have powerful unions such as RMT and Aslef so, from my perspective, they will continue to maintain a strong presence and are very much part of the wider business agenda," he explains.

To keep the relationship working, he advises HR directors to "respect" the union, "find out how it works" and "appreciate" its culture. "You need to have a close connection with them because they represent what you're paid to manage - people."

In Hockaday's industry, becoming part of a union is almost part of the culture. But industries that have been long-unionised are in decline, and growth sectors such as technology have no union presence.

"Traditional working-class jobs are a much smaller percentage of the overall labour market now, particularly manual and industrialised work," Hockaday says. "The rise in immigrant workers will have made a difference as they may not be familiar with the culture of joining a union."

Green adds that many young people view unions as "outdated" and that they need to change their image if they are to maintain influence with future generations.

"If I was running a trade union I would see it as more of a membership organisation, supplying services such as insurance and training, so there's a relationship beyond just representation," he says. "Younger generations have a more individualistic view of the world. I suspect because of that shift, unions' role will diminish over time."

However, Hayes is adamant today's political context means it will be some time before the union voice is silenced. "No matter how much this Government tries to dilute workers' rights, unions will ensure it doesn't happen," he says. "Any HR professional will have to ensure a good relationship with union representatives - because they are here to stay."