Panel debate: What will ensure unions have a future in the private sector?

12 June 2024

One of the highlights of Prospect National Conference 2024 was a panel debate featuring expert speakers from industry, academia and the union movement to explore the theme of the future of unions in the private sector.

Chairing the debate was Lord Ray Collins,  who was a senior figure for many years in the Transport and General Workers’ Union, helping see them through its merger with Amicus to create Unite.

Lord Collins, also a former General Secretary of the Labour Party and currently Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, said in his opening remarks, “It’s a real pleasure to be here. I’ve been heavily engaged with Prospect on a number of occasions looking at how trade unions respond to the challenges we face.”

Also on the panel were:

Here are the speakers’ remarks and statements, which have been kept as verbatim as possible, but also edited for length and clarity.

Neil Carberry, MD, Recruitment and Employment Confederation

In the UK, we’ve gone through eras of industrial relations. You go back to the 19th century, and the establishment of trade union rights, into the post-war consensus period and into the management’s right to manage period under Margaret Thatcher. That means there’s always a risk in employment relations of fighting the last battle.

It’s important to reflect on that when we think about where we are now in the relations between unions and business. I suspect that we’ve moved into a new phase and that both unions and businesses need to get used to that new phase.

In business over the last 25-30 years, the UK Labour market has been characterised by a relative glut of labour supply. It’s been dominated by the school of management that came out of the US, which is very focused on the financial and structural aspects of running a business, and rather less on the people side. If I had one wish, I’d rewrite the UK MBA curriculum to focus more on people.

Through the management right to manage period that allied with the Thatcher union reforms there was a real sense of taking control of the agenda within the management structure. If nothing else, there was a strand of thinking in business that was about marginalising and moving beyond trade union relations.

In reality, people come to work for different reasons and as a business your role is to take what you need to achieve, and what your workforce want to achieve, and find a way of stitching that together. That is fundamentally an employment relations goal.

I think at this moment we are going into a new era. Everyone gets my favourite statistic: you understand everything that’s happening in the British labour market right now once you understand that 50% more babies were born in Britain in 1964, than in 1977.

For all the chat about things like Brexit, the UK’s labour supply change, and those of most Western countries, is being driven by big demographic changes. At the same time, we’ve got huge tech change, we’ve got the development of hybrid working, we’ve got a whole range of different competitive pressures on business.  That means business leaders are thinking, how do I change my operating model?

Whatever happens next is a process that you need to carry your staff with you on. So, I think there’s an opportunity here, not for a return to 1975, nor a return to 1985, but a new form of discussion and I think it must be based on a couple of things.

One, it’s essential to build trust on both sides.

My friend Greg McClymont, who was a Labour MP until 2015, would say that unions generally have to choose between the boardroom and the barricade, and there’s an element of making a commitment to one or the other, because that helps to build trust. We also need to build skills on both sides. We need to understand how to negotiate. I will be open: I think my side of the table has largely forgotten too, and that’s something that we need to pick up.

I think the other thing is we need to acknowledge legitimate good intent. I remember, John Hannett then of Usdaw, who served with me on the Low Pay Commission. He said the challenge that he had was doing great work in boardrooms with major retailers but then having non-affiliated upstart unions standing outside saying he needed to be fighting alongside them on the outside.

If we don’t support those who are focused on the growth of the economy, which we know is essential to funding our public services, as well as supporting the cost of living of everyone in this country, then we push that conflict outside our gate, and I think that would be a major mistake.

Joanne Cairns, Head of Policy and Research, USDAW

It’s hard to think of a more pressing issue for us as a trade union movement. At the moment, there are many challenges facing unions organising in the private sector, which I’m sure everyone here understands only too well.

If we are to make sure that our movement not only survives but thrives in the future, then we need to be addressing those challenges.

Here and now, the biggest challenge has to be building union density. It goes without saying we can only win the best deal for our members when we have a strong presence in the workplace but currently only 12% of private sector workers are members of a trade union, and only 20% of jobs in the private sector are covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

So, how do we get to a position where union membership and collective voice are the norm and not the exception? We know that with the general election taking place in less than a month’s time the landscape from employment relations is likely to change significantly.

Labour’s New Deal for Working people will bring a whole changes not just to individual rights but to collective rights too. The big headlines on that are often around repealing the anti-union laws, which is important, but it’s not the whole story.

The New Deal also includes important new rights for trade unions to access workplaces for recruitment purposes, it will simplify the laws around statutory recognition making it easier for unions to ensure companies recognise unions where the workforce wants that, and it will create new rights and protections for union reps.

These new rights offer real opportunities for us to strengthen our movement but ultimately it’s going to be down to trade unions to use those opportunities effectively.

We know that the biggest reason people don’t join a union is simply that they’ve never been asked. That’s why a clear and consistent organizing strategy is crucial for every union. In my union, Usdaw, we need to recruit up to 100,000 members every year just to stand still because the nature of the sectors where we organise means there’s very high turnover.

We have to relentlessly focus on organising and we have to build self-sustaining organising structures too and that means developing reps so that they see recruitment as part of their role alongside representing and advising members.

It means ensuring we’re attending every new starter induction whenever we can and dealing with new challenge of online inductions instead of face-to-face and it means bringing our campaigns alive in the workplace so people can see the difference that we’re making.

Although we’ve made some real progress we continue to have a problem across the trade union movement with representation. Our leadership structures often don’t reflect the diversity of our membership and if we’re going to remain relevant and representative then we have to do something about that.

Finally, and I think this is why events like this panel discussion are so important, we need to listen and learn from each other. We need to take examples of good practice, both nationally and internationally, and think carefully about how they can work in other unions and other sectors.

We’re at a really critical and exciting time for our movement, for working people and for our country. There’s much to be positive about, but we need to make sure that we take every possible opportunity to maximise our strength as a trade union movement.

Professor Melanie Simms, Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Glasgow

In my research, one of the things we often talk about in industrial relations are the three bodies: that’s the unions, the employers and the state.

It’s undoubtedly true that the state does a lot to set the mood music within which day-to-day bargaining, day-to-day employment relations takes place but of course it’s problematic to be reliant on the state, whether you’re an employer or a union.

My work is really focused on the active work that employers and unions can do to promote good employment relations on a day-to-day level. For unions, I think, there’s a real question about being at the table, not just when policy is made but when it’s also delivered. That is one thing that unions are likely to have an opportunity to do in the private sector much more in the coming years.

I tend to focus on skills as a key issue because it’s one of those emblematic issues where all parties have skin in the game, of having skilled workers and continuing skills development across the lifetime of workers.

If we look around the world, what we see is overwhelming evidence that bodies, such as what used to be called in the UK, Sector Skills Councils, bringing together the three groups to decide how to share the risk and rewards of investing in upskilling workers are really important. They are the key mechanism that deliver positive outcomes for all of us a society, for employers, and for workers themselves.

Understanding of those institutions, and how we can build those institutions, is important and some of that comes from the state but a lot of it also comes from the capacity of both unions and employers to be able to engage in those kinds of organisations.

We need more of those kinds of bodies, where the parties with skin in the game can collaborate, can negotiate and compromise and agree what’s important is crucial.

Skills are a good area to start but that principle of tripartite regulation can extend into all sorts of other areas of work and employment. The Low Pay Commission is a good example and health and safety too.

Regulations clearly matter but, again, is often very dependent on the government of the time and they don’t really address the structural challenges that unions are engaged with.

As Neil has slightly touched on, employers’ capacity and capabilities are important too. But for unions I think having these New Deal rights is going to open up real challenges about our capacity and capability to take advantage of them in our workplace.

We have large sectors of the private sector where we have few reps and officers who know how to engage with those employers. We have relatively little resource to invest the kind of activity we’ve just been talking about. We may even encounter resistance from existing membership groups who want resources to be continued to be invested in established activities.

I think it’s important that we don’t just limit ourselves to thinking about what the current opportunities are. Our neighbours in the EU have all been set a policy challenge of extending collective bargaining coverage to 80% of the workforce. So, this is a question that a lot of the EU member states are going to be thinking about.

In the next years we’re going to see some really innovative ideas about how they are addressing these challenges and I think we’re going to be able to learn a lot about how countries that are similar to us address the challenges.

Andreas Beckert, Deputy Secretary General of the Swedish Union Confederation, TCO

Currently, as many of you may know, the Swedish labour market is very eventful. We have an ongoing strike at Tesla that will probably become the longest strike in Swedish labour history. The Nurses’ union have been on strike since last week. Nurses have had had a long struggle against the employers, not only regarding pay and working hours, but also concerning the right to take industrial action.

In this context, I want to focus Unionen, our biggest affiliate. It’s one of the world’s fastest growing white-collar unions in the private sector.

It was formed from a merger back in 2008 and they have since doubled their membership from around 320,000 at that time to over 700,000. I think in a UK context, and in Swedish context, that’s a big union.

We have in Sweden a very favourable environment in the private sector for organising. There are a lot of new job opportunities in these times of deregulation. We also have in Sweden policies that have weakened the safety net in general, which has led to a stronger offer from the unions when it relates to security and so forth.

Secondly, is that Unionen have made significant investments. Their department for preventing member exits is bigger than any other central union office in Sweden – just the department on prevent member exits!

The most critical investment by Unionen was made like 10 years ago and that was about simplifying the entry process. The 30,000 elected reps don’t need to do a lot of paperwork when it comes to new members. They were really trying to aligning it with a commercial process, you go into a shopping centre, and you buy things easily. They really wanted to recreate that process that was just, “Yes, thanks, I’ll join” and then the formal processes they take care of later.

One thing that I often talk about when it comes to not only Unionen, but also our successful affiliates in the TCO, is that there are commitments from top leadership. They convey the message all the time, they wasn’t sitting in a boardroom and delegated the mission of recruiting to a department, or to a project. They were out there all the time creating this culture: recruit, recruit, recruit.

On the challenges, there are always two sides of the coin. When you’re talking about growing organically without mergers and if you are talking about growing an organisation that has grown 100% in 15 years that is fundamentally a big change.

The number of elected reps are declining while there are is surge in membership. Should we remain being a union with local reps present at the working place, or should we just pack everything into an app?

I can tell you that in our 12 affiliates, the number one question at their congresses is how do we get more elected reps? We want to defend our organisational model, we want to be present, and we want to be local. We do not want to pack everything into an app on the phone.