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Employers beware: Len McCluskey's appointment at Unite means a return to traditional union values

Len McCluskey's election as leader of Unite, the UK's largest trade union, is significant. Unite has for some time, depending on who you listen to, been crippled with internal wrangling as a result of having two chiefs - Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, who reportedly don't see eye to eye.

Both backed different candidates in the recent leadership election; Simpson supporting Les Bayliss and Woodley supporting Len McCluskey. Since the Amicus and TGWU merger to create Unite started, many employers have been frustrated at the internal politics within the union and the impact on their ability to conduct meaningful day to day business.

So, does McCluskey’s election mean that we may see a more disciplined, co-ordinated Unite begin to emerge? I fear not. Unite, well, 7% of its membership, has elected a leader that believes in a return to traditional union values, who wants to fight the Government at every turn and who blames the banks for the meltdown – banks who by the way, are full of Unite members. McCluskey was seen on national TV heckling Ed Milliband’s speech to the Labour Party with cries of "Rubbish" when the new leader talked about the importance of not bowing down to industrial action.

One of the biggest issues facing unions in the UK, Unite included, is the decline in membership. Some 25% of the UK work force is a union member, a number that is steadily reducing year on year, and there is little sign of it stopping. Unions have to find a way of attracting younger workers into membership – the current turmoil in the job market should provide a fantastic opportunity to do that. But they can’t all the time these 50+ age, white male union leaders appear on the TV telling us all that there is a class war to be fought and capitalism is the route of evil. Most 25-40 year olds don’t engage with that language or that argument.

One union that does hold a different approach and attitude is Usdaw, which represents the UK’s shop and retail workers. It takes the view that it would rather see employers be successful and will work with them to that end. It doesn’t mean that it is a push over for unscrupulous employers, but that it would rather engage meaningfully with a company’s management to safeguard and create jobs. This builds an environment where the union is seen to be adding value to the direction of the business. Usdaw has grown its membership by 5% in the last year, quite an achievement given the high turnover of workers in retail.

Many employers I work with where Unite is recognised have been dreading the news that McCluskey has been elected. They are worried that the union will become very difficult to deal with and the union’s officers will be told to be far more traditional in their dealings with managers. I think these scenarios are highly likely and Unite will demand more management time and resources. That will be a huge shame as if the union’s extensive resources were focused on growing membership by engaging with younger workers, the positive impact for the trade union movement will be huge.

There is no question that the next few years will be turbulent in industrial relations terms. There is a lack of employee relations skills and expertise in the UK yet increasing demand for those skills. The way shared services and the Dave Ulrich model has compartmentalised HR jobs so the 'business partner' has little or no responsibility for disciplines such as employee relations is a travesty. The CIPD, the professional body responsible for developing human resources talent, has sadly not addressed this issue at all. This has left the way clear for canny union people to exploit a massive gap in the skills and competence of many HR professionals in the UK.

Andy Cook has over 10 years’ experience in senior HR positions in heavily unionised work places, including the airline and transport industries. He is now chief executive of specialist employee relations firm, Marshall-James