How to Work Effectively with Trade Unions - Vista Employer Services
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How to Work Effectively with Trade Unions

A healthy trade union relationship is an asset to a business, although navigating the pathway towards achieving it can be complicated. How can organisations work effectively with their trade unions and improve industrial relations throughout the business?

Managing expectations

When a collective agreement has been drafted in the 60’s or 70’s, its content can often reflect a time where the business was willing to offer the trade union the ability to negotiate on a very broad scope of issues, including even minor or trivial changes. As time has moved on, some more dated and expansive union recognition agreements become too onerous and unfit for purpose in the current environment as they can be overly limiting, disruptive and place undue constraints on a business trying to achieve their aims and objectives and remain competitive.

This situation ultimately leads to an unclear trade union relationship and a mixture of expectations between what the unions should be involved in, and when their agreement is required.

To tackle this situation, an employer can look to re-strike the balance in terms of collaboration and partnership. Businesses must focus on resolving these disputes without compromising the organisation’s wellbeing. A good question to ask yourself is ‘how do we want to work with employee representatives, and what outcome(s) do we want?’

Reaching a position where the collective agreement is redrafted in line with new business aims and objectives requires a careful process of reviewing, refining and redefining those terms to make sure they are fit for purpose on both sides. It must be clear what issues the trade union can and should get involved in for a business to run effectively.

Training to talk to trade unions

It might surprise you to hear that lots of managers don’t know that trade unions run as a business. So here lies another essential cog in the trade union management machine, training.

A tricky situation that often arises for managers is dealing with the trade union representative. This can be a difficult conversation for them to have because they feel that any interaction with the trade union is completed in conflict.

Giving managers the confidence to deal with trade unions when issues do arise, will benefit constructive working relationships across the organisation. Consider training managers in the people side of things, but also the technical, such as the rules of the trade union rep and what they can or cannot do.

Getting to the heart of the matter

If it does come to a dispute, ask yourself if its genuine or on the basis of scoring political points.
If it’s a genuine dispute that is of real concern to your employees, approach it collaboratively. If you suspect your trade union are just trying to score points, a different strategy will be required. Either way, communication is key. View joint meetings as a chance to present your case professionally, so the merit in all parties’ positions can be understood.

If the dispute is one of a sensitive nature, such as a difference of fact, organisations can benefit from instructing an independent third party. This approach can enable organisations to benefit from a supplier’s expertise whilst also removing the politics from a situation and allowing for business as usual to continue.

If your situation is hostile and complex or your union is only pushing their own agenda in a rather blinkered fashion, it’s time to escalate the matter to regional or national officials of your trade union. In our experience they have the ability to offer a balanced mindset on local politics to achieve a positive solution. If your union still threatens strike action, seek legal advice and don’t worry – often an employer’s position is stronger than was previously thought.

Our final point is what we like to call ‘reaching for the nuclear button’ and we always advise managing industrial relations constructively before considering whether derecognising the union may be a viable option. Whether in the heat of an immediate threat of industrial action, or just a failure to agree, organisations can always work in a forward-looking manner to improve industrial relations throughout an organisation for the long term.

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Industrial Relations

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