Tuesday, February 05, 2013

What do union reps do? (2) What do we do with the time we spend?

The sixth Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS), initial findings from which have recently been published (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers), provides evidence about the issues with which workplace representatives (including non-union reps) have been dealing;

"Representatives were shown a list of 11 items and asked which they spent their time on and what they considered to be the most important issue for their workplace. Union representatives were more likely than non-union representatives to spend time on discipline and grievances, while training was a more common issue for non-union representatives.
Taking both union and non-union representatives together, the most common issues that representatives spent time on were discipline and grievances (64%), health and safety (62%), and rates of pay (61%). The prevalence of these issues had not changed since 2004. Issues that had grown in prevalence were: pension entitlements (from 30% in 2004 to 45% in 2011) and performance appraisals (from 28% to 41%).
The increased prevalence of certain issues between 2004 and 2011 meant that the number of issues that representatives spent their time on increased: 88% spent their time on two or more issues in 2011, a rise from 73% in 2004.
When asked whether their time was spent primarily on collective or individual issues, non-union representatives were more likely to spend their time primarily on issues that affect groups of employees: 64% compared to 41% of union representatives. Union representatives were more likely than non-union representatives to say their time was equally divided between collective and individual issues (23% and 7%)"

In other words, workplace representatives spend our time dealing with basic "bread and butter" issues in the workplace.

The apparent paradox that union representatives are dealing less predominantly with "collective" issues than "non-union" representatives is clearly a consequence of the dominance, in the workload of union representatives of the representation of trade union members as individuals (whether in disciplinary, grievance, sickness or capability procedures).

It is precisely because trade union representatives are part of a collective organisation representing the collective interests of workers independently of the employer that they can represent individual workers against the employer.

It's 45 years since the Donovan Commission famously described shop stewards as a "lubricant rather than an irritant" in industrial relations (http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/emire/UNITED%20KINGDOM/DONOVANCOMMISSION196568-EN.htm), but WERS shows that this remains true.

In any industry, sector or profession where productivity depends to any extent upon the engagement or commitment of the workforce, employers need processes to regulate work and the employment relationship which workers can view as at least minimally fair. The role of independent trade union representatives to defend workers' interests remains the most widespread answer to the questions raised by this need.

At the same time, it is clear that many thousands of volunteer, elected lay activists are the bedrock of the trade union movement, dealing with the issues with which workers look to their union to deal.

When the Tory Right stop squabbling between homophobes and libertarians and return to their hobby of attacking trade union facility time, WERS may be a useful source of data to ensure that any debate bears at least some relationship with evidence and reality.



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