If Trade Unions are the answer I’m not sure what the question is…


And the countdown conundrum is...

Any post which attempts to commence a discussion of Trade Unions is bound to be declared as politically motivated. Please accept that this is a genuine attempt to discuss the issue and that I’m not a closet Tory. Also, please accept that this represents one bloggers view and not the view of the whole blog team.

Over the past 12-18 months I have become increasingly frustrated with the trades union in the Local Government sector. As far as I can tell they have failed in both the representative and the strategic elements of their role and have failed to provide the leadership I believe is required at this time.

I recognise that many of the problems they face may not be their fault and will discuss this in a moment but so far these are my main complaints.

Many councils are currently in the process of carrying out consultation with the trades union over changes to their staffs Ts and Cs. In just one example of this it has led to all staff in Shropshire being dismissed with the intention of re-employing them on new contracts. Many senior managers, being accustomed to working directly with trade unions rather than ‘staff’ have therefore negotiated direct with the trade unions and then announced the outcomes of these negotiations post fact.

This doesn’t work.

The local trade union representatives are rarely representative of the overall views of the employees and in my experience make precious little effort to find out. If the managers are incapable of doing a proper staff consultation then surely the unions should be in the business of doing so. Find out what staff really want and help achieve it.

The Unions also only really represent the staff who pay dues to the particular trade union. Yet, despite this the management don’t have a non-union reach out programme and rely on the unions; sometimes in the knowledge that they will be intractable and therefore allow the management to be on solid ground when they implement unilaterally.

Equally, my experience of the arguments made by unions at the local level is that they are basically ridiculous. Many local authorities are looking to take 10-15% out of their operating budget this year. Yet despite this I’ve lost count of the number of unions who have argued that instead of changing terms and conditions or making staff redundant local authorities should:

1)      Just use the councils reserves (showing an Eric Pickles like understanding of local government finance)

2)      Stop paying consultants so much (correct but unlikely to fill any hole)

3)      Reduce the pay of senior managers (not unreasonable but as above)

4)      Root out tax avoidance (ok, but not really an issue for local government)

Its borderline illiterate and deeply frustrating. There are plenty of ways to spread the pain and protect jobs but none of the above are even close.

Oh, and the cost for an individual member to have a stake in this wisdom is getting on for £100 per year. Fine if the union are delivering something for that money; deeply disappointing when the above is all you get.

So what should we do?

I’m no expert but surely the beginning of trade unions was all about groups of staff gathering together to negotiate with the management. This doesn’t require strategies, national bodies or any of the paraphernalia that accompanies a modern trade union. All it requires is groups of staff gathering together to negotiate collectively.

And in return it requires council management to properly consult and engage with their staff body. It is simply not good enough for them to rely on trade unions or just ignore the staff totally. These are tough times and we need to work through these problems together.

Unfortunately, right now the Trade unions don’t seem to be helping the problem.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make (especially if you would like to defend the role trade unions are currently playing in local government) please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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5 Comments on “If Trade Unions are the answer I’m not sure what the question is…”


  1. Last week there were some stats about the pay differentials between the public sector and the private sector. On the whole public sector workers get paid more than their private sector counterparts except graduates who do worse.

    So there’s a benefit of Public Sector Trade Unions, they help maintain decent conditions for the majority of staff. Imagine how much less we’d love local government if the work force was a surly and uncooperative as in the private sector.

    • jgh Says:

      “On the whole public sector workers get paid more than their private sector counterparts except graduates who do worse.”

      I knew it was a mistake to go to University…. ;)

  2. John KM Says:

    It’s not clear to me how management would go about consulting non-union members. Let’s say there’s a workforce of 5,000, half of whom are union members. One of three things could happen.
    a) Consult all staff with some sort of survey. Management then frame the questions and can thus report the findings in whatever way they choose best. There could be 2,500 different answers to qualitative questions, the results of which could again be reported in whichever way management choose.
    b) Choose staff representatives or ask people to come forward. Those who are selected are then accountable to no-one and may just involve themselves because they have an axe to grind or who are seeking personal career advancement through cosying up to senior staff.
    c) Elect representatives of non-union staff. This then essentialy amounts to being a union, but without the various bits of legislation that ensure democratic process.
    Unions need national structures because a great deal of things are decided by national government. Succesive administrations have undermined local democracy to the point where national representation is vital.
    I would not say for one moment that there aren’t many things about unions that should be reformed but the way to ensure effective and accountable unions is for everyone to join and hold stewards and branch officers to account. If they think they could do a better job then they should stand for election themselves. If they think dues are too high then they could vote to lower them. If they think unions are too ready to strike then they could vote against such action.
    Since unions are democratic organisations you can change them if you wish, as long as you persuade enough people to agree with you. Technically if you don’t succeed then you go off and set up your own trade union.
    Don’t snipe from the sidelines, get involved!


    • well, at News International, where they hate unions, they still have NISA (NI Staff Association) who have a sweetheart deal with no strikes, but management still need to have a collective organisation to bargain with. Above a certain level of staffing (in particular types of hierarchies) there can be no one-to-one deal.


  3. [...] Also last week we were put up a post expressing our disappointment with the performance of local government trade unions and basically asking the question: If Trade Unions are the answer I’m not sure what the question is? [...]


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