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Why workplace union reps should be supported rather than attacked

Why workplace union reps should be supported rather than attacked

Workplace union representatives are often in the line of fire. Recent government moves to undermine their ability to carry out their role have included a Cabinet Office drive to cut union facility time in government departments and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, warning councils to cut back on staff having paid time off to carry out union duties. On Tuesday this week Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude made an "urgent" statement to the House of Commons on the Government’s clamp down on union rep activities in the Civil Service.

The debate about workplace reps has tended to focus on the perceived ‘cost’ rather than the value of what they do. The work of a rep includes collective and individual representation and giving advice and information. This needs to be properly recognised and supported.

Time off for trade union duties is underpinned by the ACAS Code of Practice. And figures produced by the then Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR, now BIS) and cited by the TUC  report savings of between £372million to £977million a year accrued in large measure as a result of the presence and work of union representatives (due to factors such as fewer Employment Tribunal cases, fewer working days lost to workplace injury and reduced work related illness).

Now new research shows that having a union rep in the workplace can improve job quality for employees.

As well as being associated with individual well-being, job quality is also important for organisations as job satisfaction is related to higher productivity, fewer workers quitting their jobs and lower absenteeism. Thus, it has important socio-economic impacts and is relevant to current debates about improving productivity.

In a paper I have co-written (£) with academics from Warwick Business School, Royal Holloway (University of London) and Cass Business School, and soon to be published in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy, we analysed a survey of Unite members in the finance sector and found that employee perceptions of several dimensions of job quality are better where an onsite union representative is present and that this can be explained by the higher perceptions of union collective voice that onsite representatives engender. (We controlled for a number of factors including gender, ethnicity, work status, age, salary, size of workplace and region.)

Respondents in workplaces with an onsite representative reported higher job quality than those in workplaces without an onsite representative in respect of three aspects of job quality: job content (factoring elements such as whether they found their job interesting and enjoyable, whether they have a say in how the work they are responsible for gets done, and whether their job makes full use of their skills and talents), job stress and work-life balance.

Interestingly, we found no association between onsite union presence and job security. This might be explained by employers being particularly resistant to attempts to influence this aspect of job quality due to perceived additional labour costs. In addition, decisions on job security policies and staffing reductions may not be subject to much discretion at a local level.

There is growing concern about the quality of jobs in the UK particularly in the light of government policy drives for ‘labour market flexibility’. And whilst the recession may have emphasised the importance of having a job, the quality of work still matters. Trade unions may have always had a focus on the economic aspects of the employment relationship, but improving job quality has also been a longstanding union concern.

Proper institutional support is needed to facilitate the participation of unions in decision-making if the relationship between unions and job quality is to be developed and onsite union representation is one such form of institutional support.

Workplace union reps make a positive difference. Not just to people’s experiences of work but to their organisations and to society. Rather than trying to weaken rights to time off and the facilities reps need to do their job, government policy should recognise their value and support them.