Thursday, January 31, 2013

How members view unions in the workplace

I'm still dipping in to the recently published first findings of the sixth Workplace Employee Relations study (WERS)(https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers), which provides the best source of large scale quantitative data about our experience of working life.

As any union rep who has ever dealt with an individual or group of members angry and dissatisfied with their union knows, one of our perennial concerns is how our members view us. Particularly for lay, rank and file representatives in the workplace, the views and opinions of colleagues amongst whom we work and by whom we are (or may not be) elected are of paramount importance.

WERS asked employees who they would go to with various workplace issues and found that "most, but not all, union members thought union representatives would best represent them. The percentages of union members who chose union representatives was 76% in respect of reductions in pay or hours, 71% in respect of disciplinary matters and 69% for obtaining a pay increase."

Although we might think all those figures should be 100%, I think they're a tolerably encouraging indication that our rank and file members place some faith - or, at least hope - in our workplace organisation.

Given that the purpose of a trade union is precisely to deal with workplace issues such as these, and that (as a knock-on effect) our performance in relation to these "bread and butter" questions is key to both the recruitment and retention of members, we need to reflect upon what we can and should do to increase the percentages reported by WERS and quoted above.

I offer two suggestions, though there could be many more.

First, given the increased fragmentation of employment and localisation of bargaining, we need to do more to decentralise resources to branch level (which, in UNISON at least, is as close as our structures get to the workplace). UNISON's "Fighting Fund Organisers" might help, but it's a bit early to say (and throwing resources simply at recruitment won't help us do the work which our members expect of us).

Secondly, it's important that we respond swiftly now to the Coalition's attacks upon employment rights which will impact upon our performance in relation to these key workplace issues. For example, we need a "line" on what we'll do about employment tribunal charges faced by members we're representing, should we not resolve an issue at work.

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

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