Trade unions in the post-pandemic workplace

What should employers be doing now?

As businesses start to emerge from the pandemic, and make plans for the future, there is an opportunity to consider the nature of the relationship between employers and trade unions. How can and how should this relationship develop?

Relationships between trades unions and employers have shifted over time and Covid has accelerated this. Trade unions have focused on collective progress: job protection, and better pay and conditions (including safety) for the many. The emphasis amongst many employers has been on profit, shareholder value and growth. Industrial relations typically found a balance between these aims. As highlighted, Covid has started to change this and presented extraordinary threats to business and employees, driving an unprecedented degree of collaboration between unions, employers and government. Initially this was seen in cooperation over packages such as the furlough scheme, then in late September, recognising the devastating impact of Covid on business and workers, the CBI, TUC and ACAS issued a joint statement on handling redundancies1.

Here we raise some topical questions for businesses with active trade union relations, from the perspective of both trade union and employer. These probe how employers can work effectively with these key stakeholders and highlight that this is a topic employers should be actively engaged with now.

The possible impact on trade unions

  • The balance of power between employers and their employees may look one-sided at present, with normal industrial levers like strikes being unrealistic during periods of economic contraction. Counter-intuitively, this could provide a chance for trade unions to grow, as they offer employees an established mechanism through which to apply collective influence in the workplace, for example based on confidence about safety at work, or through active engagement in restructuring processes.

  • There is an opportunity for unions who wish to build a more prominent role to do so and to reassert their relevance in the modern workplace. We have already seen this as employers consult with their unions about tactical issues such as furlough, along with more strategic workforce reshaping. Unions and employers have a choice: do they adopt adversarial positions, or do they look beyond the status quo to find a joint ambition to survive and rebuild?  

  • Trade unions with an eye to the future may see this as a moment to take the initiative and establish or build a stronger position. Their focus may shift quickly to those businesses where we have recently seen evidence of employee activism, including tech businesses and those in the gig-economy.

The 10 things unionised businesses should be doing now:

Refresh your trade union relationships

Take the opportunity to refresh your trade union relationships as part of overall post-pandemic business planning

Issues to consider include how you best engage with the union, your collective agreements, facilities provided to your reps and whether you aim for some level of partnership. It’s vital to think about your trade union relationships whilst you refresh and plan change to the rest of your future operating model. If collective bargaining is part of your business, do not treat it as a separate track. Consider how engaged your ExCo and Board are with your union engagement strategy and whether any upskilling is needed.

Be clear on your engagement tone and approach

Building effective working relationships with your trade unions is likely to pay dividends as you look to move into the new business environment post-pandemic. But if those relationships have previously been strained, it's important to recognise that a long-term positive partnership is unlikely to come about simply because employers and unions have pulled together during the current crisis. It's going to need work and some careful thought and engagement. You will need to establish positive relationships quickly: have you identified your key decision makers and do you understand their views and perspectives; what sort of engagement do you want to have and how are you going to achieve that?

Engage soon

If you are yet to engage with your trade unions, consider the risks of further delay

If you take ideas to a trade union that you have been thinking through since the pandemic began, don’t expect them to catch up with your thinking or reach an agreement on day one. You have taken time to get to this point in your thinking and they will also need time. Your thinking may be business driven, theirs will almost certainly be primarily focused on employee protection. Pushing for agreement without taking these factors into account is likely to result in a hostile response and delay. Careful planning is needed.

Consider the practical impact of furlough and remote working

If you think you need to consult, what practical barriers do you face and what solutions are available if you are working remotely or have furloughed employees?

Although uncertain at the time the furlough scheme was introduced, it quickly became clear that trade union representatives can undertake trade union activities and duties whilst on furlough, without breaking the rules of the scheme. This will continue until the furlough scheme ends on 31 March 2021. This will cover collective consultation (i.e. where over 20 employees are affected by proposals) in the context of, for example, reducing the size of the workforce or changes to collectively bargained terms and conditions. Unions will not, however, have operated consultation on a remote basis in many cases. Trade unions are increasingly adopting a digital agenda, but - like businesses - some are more advanced than others. Thinking about how to support your unions in carrying out this vital role will be invaluable.

Think about specific relationships to deal with specific issues

In reopening workplaces health and safety is a critical consideration. Both the government and the Health & Safety Executive have called out the role of the trade union safety representative in this process. This role has long been established, but hasn’t historically been at the forefront of union engagement in many workplaces. Do you have effective engagement with this person or group? Can you work together to reach a shared view on reopening your workplace - and will this give your employees more confidence about their return to work? The new tier system will be subject to reviews which suggests that the restrictions businesses are subject to may change fairly frequently. You will likely have considered the impact of different tiers on business continuity but has this been communicated to employees as well, to reassure them and establish certainty as to what is expected of them.

Identify and prioritise what you want to act on

What have you learnt during the first two lockdowns that you want to act on?

Health and safety is a useful starting point into a discussion with your trade unions about what you might do if there were to be further lockdowns where you operate. After two lockdowns you may have a clearer understanding of what arrangements must be in place to operate under restrictions. Are there ideas that worked well, or that you wish you had introduced, which you would like to agree now as a blueprint for any future lockdown or restrictions created by the tier system?

Begin to look at the long-term picture

Having established new working arrangements in response to the pandemic, can you agree to greater flexible working arrangements in the long term? How will this change how and where your people work and does this need to be agreed collectively? Many employers are having to engage today with Workforce of the Future questions that seemed longer-term only a few months ago. Do you have a clear vision for how you want to operate, how your workforce might need to change and what upskilling might be required to do that? What are the restrictions of your current collective agreements and how can those be navigated?

Build future thinking into current engagement plans

If your business sector is shrinking in the short term, or likely to take a significant period to recover, but you do not yet need to consult on restructuring, should you in any case engage proactively with your trade unions to consider ways to reduce cash burn and maintain as many jobs as possible? This might include through both short and long term schemes based on, for example, hours reductions, short and longer term time out, or incentives linked to short term cuts with longer term compensation based on meeting agreed targets.

Identify areas of joint focus

How do you and your trade unions jointly focus on future trading to find a balance between optimal business decisions and maximum protection of jobs?

9.6 million UK jobs were furloughed under the initial furlough scheme, many from unionised businesses. What is the future for these people? If business and trade unions considered this question together, recognising the shared economic benefits of every business that continues to trade profitably, and every job that is protected, would it be possible to create better joint solutions than could be achieved through adversarial engagement? This approach is at the heart of the CBI, TUC and ACAS joint statement.

Prepare for a return to (a new?) normal

What are you planning in the medium-term as furlough winds down by March and expectations rise about a return to normality with a vaccine?

The furlough scheme is currently planned to end on 31 March 2021. Have you moved people to part time furlough? Will the removal of furlough change your business planning? Have you started to discuss this with your trade unions? It is best for employers to plan and kick off collective conversations early about the potential impact on employees of these further changes.

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