Forming alliances: How to build better trade union relationships

Recent pay-feuds at the RSPCA and St Mungo's have highlighted the strained relationship between charities and their trade unions. They share the same vision, so why must they go to battle?

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There is a scene in the film Made in Dagenham where the car factory’s hard-nosed head of industrial relations is entertaining the main boss at his home. They are discussing the campaign for equal pay and ask Hopkins’ wife for her opinion. Was the industrial action the result of “too much velvet glove and not enough iron fist”? They ask. “Quite the opposite,” Lisa Hopkins replies. She uses the example of General Motors, which doesn’t have any problems with the unions “due to their more collaborative approach”, whereas “at Ford, you only deal with the unions because you have to; you tolerate them. And as a result, they’re more entrenched and aggressive in their dealings with you”.

It was an observation that is just as relevant for some charities today as it was for Ford back in the 1960s. While many organisations enjoy positive relations with their union representatives, others do not. For some, it’s an old-fashioned perspective of the unions – bullyboy tactics and men thumping the table when they don’t get what they want – that has impaired relationships. For others, there is a lack of experience, with charity leadership teams being unaware of the potential benefits unions can bring.

But much like the General Motors example provided by Lisa Hopkins, those charities that take a collaborative approach to their relationship with trade unions can, and do, reap the rewards.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many of the trade union movement’s 6.35 million members work in the charity sector; figures from the Office for National Statistics only record private and public sector membership. Despite the lack of hard data, it is believed that the figure has increased over recent years, in part due to the increase in government contracts being delivered by charities and the need to bring their pay and conditions in line with public sector colleagues.

According to the TUC, numbers should be higher. “A survey of charity workers calling the TUC’s Know your Rights hotline found that the main reason for not joining a union was that they work for a charity and didn’t think they could. This is not the case. Everyone in the UK has a right to join a union. It is actually illegal for an employer to dismiss or disadvantage anyone based on union membership,” they say.

Most of these members are split across three main unions: Unison, Unite and GMB. Unison is the largest with more than 60,000 charity sector members. Of these workers, most will be employed by medium to large charities, as it is these organisations that are most likely to have a recognised union.

What’s the point?

The role that unions play within a charity will vary, but in the main it’s about helping to maintain a high-quality workforce through improved conditions.

The 2008 Way Ahead report by Acevo, which explored the relationship between charities and trade unions, may be old but much of its content is still relevant. It highlights how there are many areas of common interest between unions, employers and employees, where working together would be beneficial for everyone, such as when negotiating on contracts, full cost recovery and fair funding.

Likewise, the report highlights how a happy, well-managed workplace where employees feel fairly treated and like they have a voice is vital to the success of an organisation, and unions have a wealth of expertise in HR-related issues that they can bring to the table to help achieve this. It also highlights how union membership can act like a form of insurance for members, particularly those who work in isolation or in difficult circumstances.

Becky Wright, executive director of Unions21, which exists to support unions to increase their influence, impact and effectiveness within the world of work, agrees: “There’s a whole range of activities that unions might get involved with, from helping staff access learning and development opportunities and improving health and safety through to breaking down stereotypes and prejudices and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees,” she says.

And, of course, there is the role they play with regards to pay and conditions, advising members on issues such as employment rights and job security, and negotiating with employers to ensure a decent pay rise that reflects the cost of living.

This latter point is important, particularly when you consider that charity workers are often exposed to low pay more frequently than their equivalents in other sectors. For example, in 2017, 26.2% of charity employees were paid less than the Living Wage, compared to the national average of 22%. “The overall trend in the charity sector is one of rising low pay,” says the Living Wage Foundation on its website.

Indeed, of the charity/trade union relationships that get the most attention in the press, the issue in hand is almost always a pay dispute.

The RSPCA is a current case in point. At the time of writing, the charity was voting on whether to take industrial action in a dispute over modifications to contracts and performance-related pay. Unite claims the charity is bullying employees into accepting the changes, even though they mean a two-year pay freeze and will make it easier to sack people.

RSPCA leadership rejects these claims saying base pay will not be affected, there is no proposal to freeze pay and the changes will only affect future allowances and increments. “This pay framework review has been part of a broader piece of work that is aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the RSPCA so we can continue to rescue and protect animals that need us,” a spokesperson says.

Regardless, the claims and counter claims made by both the leadership team and the union have contributed to morale at the charity hitting rock bottom. It has not been a positive experience for anyone.

Forming a partnership

It doesn’t have to be this way. It is perfectly possible to enjoy a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with a trade union. It just takes a little bit of work.

“An effective, quality relationship is one where staff are allowed to have union representatives through which they can voice their concerns and where the employer will sit down and negotiate. A bad relationship is one where the management team won’t recognise the union nor the need to consult and instead tell employees ‘this is what we have decided for you and what you will accept’,” says Siobhan Endean, the national officer for the not for profit sector at Unite.

“We know it’s not always easy, particularly when there is pressure on funds and contracts, but having an early conversation can make all the difference,” she adds.

Brett Terry, people director at NSPCC says how he has aimed to involve the union in everything they do. “This is not about writing a policy and then getting it approved by the union, but instead about involving them from the outset – we always try and shape things together, in partnership,” he says, providing the example of working with the union on a pay survey, both drafting the questions and understanding the results together.

In addition, he and members of the management team meet with the union on a quarterly basis. This includes discussing issues in advance and getting insight from them to help the team deliver change in the best possible way. The union has also been invited to feed into the forthcoming organisational strategy.

“When you work together to shared agenda, vision and prize, the results are quite something. We don’t always get it right as ‘management’, but mistakes are accidental rather than intentional,” he says.

Not all organisations are able to enjoy this type of relationship though. Sometimes the opportunity to have those “early conversations” has been missed and a charity can find itself embroiled in disputes. But even then, it’s not too late to find a mutually beneficial way through.

“Industrial action is always the last resort and we always remain open to discussion and finding a settlement that is acceptable to everyone. People who work in charities tend to be devoted to the organisations. Management that takes the time to understand the perspectives of these employers will benefit. It can sometimes take a while to do this, but it will usefully lead to a well thought out process and one which adds more value over the long term,” says Unite’s Endean.

NSPCC’s Terry agrees. “If you find yourself in a toxic situation, it’s important to pull together the individuals who can shape the biggest changes and use them to find the common ground. Everyone wants the same thing: a healthy and strong organisation that is a great place to work and which delivers for the beneficiaries. If you keep that at the heart of the conversation and focus on where wins can be found as well as just problems, then it can be possible to reconnect and work together positively.” ■

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