· Features

The state of the union: The future of IR

Are trade unions really representing modern workers or do they need to change with the times?

It’s fair to say that 2016 won’t be remembered as a good year for industrial relations in the UK. ONS figures show that to the end of October last year 281,000 days were lost to strike action, versus the 170,000 lost in the whole of 2015. And with some rail, air and postal worker disputes showing little sign of being resolved, there is a real danger that we could see similar figures in 2017.

But is some of the strike action absolutely necessary? Or rather are the unions – who have been accused by some employers of imposing unreasonable demands – keeping pace with the seismic changes that have occurred in the workplace, not least the rapid emergence of the gig economy and brave new world of automation?

The most high-profile strike action over the last 12 months has been the ongoing dispute between Southern and the RMT and ASLEF. It revolves around Southern’s plans to cut staff in some ticket offices and make trains driver-only. The unions claim the latter is unsafe. In addition to refuting these claims Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the owner of Southern, takes issue with the tactics employed.

Andy Bindon, HR director at GTR, says: “It’s usual for trade unions to ballot their members on industrial action, for example, over jobs, pay, working practices. The unions’ dispute with us is about none of these things, but is centred on their steadfast opposition to progress, modernisation of the train services we want to provide for our passengers and utilising technology to do so.

“Of course, the dispute has caused acrimony and division with some staff. Through the strike we have always attempted to inform and engage our people, whichever side of the dispute they side with. We recognise that when the dispute is over we have work to do to rebuild and re-engage. But we’re confident we can.”

That healing process should be fairly straightforward because Keith Richmond, press officer at ASLEF, says that the vast majority of the time the union has a “productive relationship” with the train and freight operating companies. He adds that ASLEF represents around 96% of train drivers and exists to secure the best terms and conditions for them.

“We negotiate on behalf of our members, to promote a pride in the job we all do and to champion equality for our industry,” says Richmond. “We work for a fairer, more just, and more equitable society. Those are our aims and ideals. They were pretty much [our aims] when we were founded in 1888 and they still are today.”

But this could be the problem. Unions currently represent around 20% of the workforce, but back in 1995 this figure was around 32%. The dramatic drop in membership is partly because the public sector has shrunk significantly. But Kevin Green, chief executive at REC and former HRD at Royal Mail, believes that the decline is also due to the fact that unions haven’t kept pace with the requirements of workers.

“Today it’s less about collective bargaining and much more about providing services to members,” says Green. “Clearly some of the relationship between trade unions and workers is about protection, but I think the opportunity they have missed is to provide services to individuals; whether it’s insurance, work-related activities, or training and development. They’re not thinking of themselves as a B2C organisation – they see themselves as industrial relations organisations and that’s one of the great weaknesses of the union movement.”

But in fairness this doesn’t apply to all. Speaking in a personal capacity, David Arnold, a policy officer at UNISON says: “The environment in which unions have to operate is harder than ever – with greater fragmentation, contracting out, and endemic levels of insecurity. This makes it harder to follow traditional models of organisation and collective bargaining. So what you are beginning to see is a greater propensity to campaign, raise issues on behalf of workers – and pursue employers into the courts.”

An area where this new strategic approach has been strongly felt is for freelancers and people who work in the gig economy. Late last year the GMB won a victory over Uber after a tribunal ruled that drivers are workers not self-employed and should be paid the National Living Wage. And in November the IWGB asked Deliveroo for union recognition and organised a rider protest.

Alex Wood, a sociologist of work and employment at the Oxford Internet Institute, thinks we may see more activity of this type as the gig economy continues to grow and unions look to recruit new members to shore up their dwindling membership base.

“I think there is a realisation by unions that the economy is changing and they need to move out of their comfort zone and try to organise these other workers. That requires new tactics because service sector staff are not like miners or car workers who can bring the economy or a factory to a halt,” says Wood. “If Deliveroo workers go on strike people can collect the food themselves so traditional strike tactics aren’t as effective. New tactics are necessary, such as protesting, raising awareness of bad employment practices, and using employment tribunals to raise standards.”

Sean Dempsey, an employment law partner at Lewis Silkin, thinks the growing importance of the gig economy may even lead to “a new generation of trade unionists who are more suited to the modern economy and are looking at what is on the ground and taking action accordingly”. “That’s what trade unions have always done,” he adds.

Deliveroo argues that it offers people flexible work and that it has a strong relationship with its workers. A Deliveroo spokesperson says: “The IWGB does not represent the views of the vast majority of the riders we work with. The union only seeks to represent a very small subset of riders in one area of one city. We have always been, and continue to be, happy to engage directly with our riders and we welcome the opportunity to further engage with policymakers and others.”

As for whether or not the unions can ensure their ongoing relevance in a rapidly changing world, the REC’s Kevin Green believes the jury is still out.

“I think you can see some trade unions moving with the times, but there are others still stuck in 1955. I think they would be so much more relevant and powerful if they were perceived as understanding and working in today’s environment. They have to modernise and think about how work is going to be structured in the next 20 or 30 years. There is no reason why they can’t step out of their history and heritage and become a modern employment organisation.”