Hard working people don’t join Unions


July 16th, 2015

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shutterstock_272402825Love it or hate it the ‘80s seem to be making a come-back. And it’s not just music and fashion. The announcement yesterday of the Trade Union Bill had a whiff of ‘80s nostalgia.

The Bill was heralded as upholding the cause of ‘hard-working-people’, the obvious inference being you wouldn’t find ‘hard-working-people’ in a union, and they wouldn’t have unresolved disputes with their employer. That would only be those militant (another favourite ‘80s word) left-wing subversives like………Barristers?

The day the Trade Union Bill was announced, it emerged that criminal barristers have voted by a 55% majority to back ‘strike’ action in protest at the government’s cuts to legal aid.

That majority, and a 45% turnout, would at least satisfy the Bill’s requirements. So now we await the Criminal Bar Association’s decision on when the action will begin. From that point, new cases will be refused and justice through the criminal courts could judder to a halt.

And the notion of ‘justice’ seems close to the heart of all this.

While some may say the Barristers, and the Solicitors whose concerns they are supporting, have some self-interest invested, I believe the weightier motivation stems from their professional concern for justice, and equality of access to justice irrespective of wealth or status.

The timing of the Trade Union Bill isn’t coincidental and the government’s intention is transparent. The overwhelming majority of strike action is in the public sector, the private sector accounting for only 9 per cent of working days lost in 2014.[1] The public services on which ‘hard-working-people’ depend face real terms cuts of £11bn in the 5 years to 2020. [2]

Achieving that, for many in the sector, will have obvious personal financial implications. But for many teachers, nurses, doctors their opposition, just as with the Barristers, stems from fear of erosion of services to which they are committed.

So, while the rhetoric of the Bill’s announcement may be laughable, the implications are anything but. This isn’t the ‘80s. This is 2015 and we’re in a very different employment landscape. The concept of ‘Organisational Justice’ challenges HR, OD and L&D professionals in ways unfamiliar in the 1980s.

As ever, the first challenge is fulfilling the organisation’s purpose, even during conflict. David Rock’s SCARF model [3] highlights five factors influencing human engagement and performance. The ‘F’ stands for fairness. While that’s subjective, studies show [4] perceptions of procedural injustice in disputes and conflicts detrimentally effects individual and organisational performance. Where employees experience highly committed colleagues treated without dignity and respect, antagonism to the employer can go so far as campaigns to undermine the organisation’s reputation. Not a great outcome if at the same time you’re trying to attract ‘talent’, especially Gen Y and Millennials for whom issues of fairness and organisational justice are reported to have great significance.

Another challenge; if the Bill does tip the power balance in favour of the employer, how does my organisation view ‘power’?  Is our culture unitarist or pluralist? In other words, do conflicts get resolved through one voice, or many voices? What’s the place of mediation and arbitration in our ER strategy?

Another challenge concerns the place of HR as a function? Not to provoke existential angst (that would be more ‘60s than ‘80s anyway) but how do we see our purpose? And where’s our identity invested? Don’t forget, it was in the 80s that we proudly took on our new name – shuffling off the drab garb of Personnel and puffing out the shoulder pads of our managerial mandate, pronouncing these ‘humans’ in the organisation simply ‘resources’. The ‘commodity management’ approach.

Are we still signed up to that? If so, may the trade Union Bill be your ally. And all the best with the consequences.

Or have we developed more skill and subtlety in understanding our organisation as a complex, dynamic system, made up of people with conflicting but equally legitimate perspectives and convictions? In which case, welcome to the messiness of ER in 2015.

So, whether you love or hate the 80s revival, the Trade Union Bill takes us back there. But, just for fun, you could always choose a fitting backing band for your approach to ER. Madness? Dire Straits? Or Maybe ‘New Order? Now I’m just showing my age!


[1] http://www.cityam.com/220308/tfl-tube-strike-2015-days-lost-strike-action-doubled-2013-still-way-down-over-past-30-years

[2] Institute for Fiscal Studies (www.ifs.org.uk) July 2015

[3] Rock, D. (2008) ‘SCARF’: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal: Issue One.

[4] Baldwin, Susanna (2006) ‘Organisational Justice’. Institute for Employment Studies