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The changing relationship between trades unions and management

In the past 12 months trade unions and their activities have barely left the headlines. Despite falling membership numbers their ability to galvanise workers and impact the day-to-day operation of society is still obvious. The most recent British Airways strikes have created travel havoc across the world and cost the company millions of pounds.

With Labour Day tomorrow it is timely to look at the changing relationship between trade unions and management. The rise of the trades unions, following the repeal of the Combination Acts in the 1830s, mirrored the growth of industrialisation. As employers became larger, employees looked to the strength of the union to counter the might of management.

The more oppressive managers were, the stronger unions became in defending the rights of their members. The chronic state of industrial relations in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s says at least as much about the poor management of that era as it does about the labour force. It's easy to blame the protection offered by the labour laws of the day, many of which were repealed by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, but those laws came into being largely to protect employees from their employers.

So what has changed? The old industrial unions have faded with the old industries and many of the newer industries rely far more on professional and technical staff who are more reluctant to unionise (at least in the private sector). But unions have changed as well, placing far more emphasis on development of their members (for example, the extremely successful unionlearn initiative) and on negotiation to resolve conflict.

There has also been a sea change in managers' approach to their workforces (particularly in the more successful organisations), which has created a different set of relationships. This is exemplified by the MacLeod Review, on employee engagement, which emphasises the value of aligning the workforce's and organisation's goals. The example of John Lewis can't be ignored either; most other retailers would give their eye teeth to have the level of engagement that JLP achieves, arising from its employee ownership.

An interesting example of how trades unions have changed is that many of their employee representatives have taken one of the Institute of Leadership & Management's

qualifications in management, so they understand how their employers work. Twenty or 30 years ago this would have been an anathema, but it's a welcome reflection of the shared interests of workforce, trade unions and management that makes this seem common sense today. It makes discussions between managers and the trade unions so much more productive, and enables them to identify mutually beneficial ways of moving forward.

The investments trades unions have made in their representatives and staff can present a challenge for many managers. They find themselves negotiating with people who may be better trained and know as much about what's good for the business as they do.

On the other hand, knowledgeable and informed employee representatives enabled many businesses to ride out the recession, with both sides seeing the benefits of innovative ways of coping. Reduced hours and flexible working practices were introduced (surprisingly often), with the benefits of developing novel solutions to the challenge presented by the economic crisis, rather than a dog-eat-dog battle.

This raises some interesting questions about the way that the public sector (which has much wider trade union membership) responds in the coming months. The challenge for both sides is to recognise that their interests are mutually compatible, to preserve jobs and quality of services as best they can. Good management will encourage effective and responsible trades unions.

David Pardey is senior manager, research and policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management