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Working with trade unions: 2013 XpertHR survey

Author: Rachel Suff

Latest XpertHR research examines how employers work with their recognised trade unions, the level of membership and scope of recognition agreements, and the causes of collective disputes.

Regardless of whether or not organisations are facing collective disputes, trade unions are an integral part of many workplaces, with numerous employers working with them on a day-to-day basis. However, even where collective relations between an employer and its recognised trade union(s) are regarded as productive and mutually beneficial, managing that relationship can still be a challenge for employers. Our 2013 survey explores the state of the working relationship between organisations and their recognised trade union(s).

The employment relations climate

Chart 1: How employers rate their relationships with trade unions

How employers rate the relationship with their trade unions

n = 90 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

As chart 1 (right) shows, employers are generally positive about their experience of working with trade unions, with six in 10 (62%) describing the relationship as "very good" or "good". This finding is less positive than our previous research in 2010, when eight in 10 (79%) described the relationship in this way. However, while the questions were repeated in both surveys, the research was not conducted with a matched sample.

The level of industrial unrest is also higher in our current survey, with 45% of organisations having been involved in a collective dispute with their recognised trade union(s) in the past two years, compared with one-third (34%) of employers in 2010.

Our current findings show that the dispute had led to a ballot for strike action in 28 of these 41 organisations.

Pay is overwhelmingly the most common cause of a collective dispute, with 82% of respondents reporting this to be the case. This is not surprising, given the below-inflation awards experienced by most employees over the past two years.

The second and third most common issues at the root of a collective dispute were pensions (40%) and working hours (21%).

Trade union membership

According to a 2013 government statistical bulletin, around 6.5 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2012, up by 59,000 from 2011, but well below the peak of more than 13 million in 1979.

About this survey report

This summary report covers key findings from the 2013 survey on working with trade unions. XpertHR's benchmarking service has the full data on all the questions from this survey, which also covers:

  • the number and type of trade unions recognised by employers;
  • the type of recognition agreement in place in respondent organisations; and
  • the form of recognition agreement between the organisation and its recognised trade union(s).

The national trade union density figure stands at 26% - among our sample of employers, almost nine in 10 (87%) told us that their organisation employs people who are members of a trade union. This proportion is much higher than the national trade union density figure, attributable to the fact that employers that recognise trade unions are much more likely to participate in this survey.

Within these organisations, a significant percentage of the workforce belong to a trade union:

  • between nil and 25% of employees are members at 10% of employers;
  • between 26% and 50% of employees are members at 25% of employers;
  • between 51% and 75% of employees are members at 31% of employers; and
  • between 76% and 100% of employees are members at 8% of employers.

The remaining 26% of employers were unaware of the proportion of employees within their organisation that are members of a trade union.

Trade unions more focused in the public sector

Trade union activity and membership are far more prevalent in the public sector, compared with the private sector. According to the 2013 government statistical bulletin, the proportion of private-sector employees who were members of a trade union stood at 14.4% in 2012, compared with 56.3% for public-sector employees.

This trend is reflected in the XpertHR survey findings, with 93% of public-sector employers recognising one or more trade union, compared with 74% of manufacturing-and-production companies and 61% of private-sector-services companies.

Public-sector organisations are also more likely to recognise a larger number of trade unions - it is not unusual for a very large NHS organisation or local authority to negotiate with at least a dozen unions. Our findings show that 41% of public-sector organisations recognise more than five trade unions compared with 9% of private-sector-services companies.

Employers' recognition agreements

According to Acas' definition of trade union recognition, a trade union is "recognised" by an employer when it negotiates agreements with employers on pay and other terms and conditions of employment on behalf of a group of workers, defined as the "bargaining unit".

The XpertHR findings show that three employers in four (74.8%) recognise at least one trade union for collective bargaining purposes.

A recognition agreement typically covers an entire organisation or specific bargaining unit, and not just those employees who are members of the relevant trade union(s). This has long been a contentious issue for many trade union activists as, under such a system, non-union members will benefit from exactly the same improvements in terms and conditions that have been negotiated through the union.

Recognition agreements: procedural provision

Trade union recognition agreements typically cover a range of procedural issues that govern how trade unions operate on a day-to-day basis and how their relationship with management is conducted. Survey respondents were asked to identify what procedural matters are covered in their collective agreement. Their responses are summarised in chart 2 below.

Chart 2: Coverage of procedural issues in recognition agreements

Coverage of procedural issues in recognition agreements

n = 90 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Negotiating, consulting and information-sharing with unions

Chart 3 sets out the 12 employment relations issues on which employers engage with their recognised trade unions. Not surprisingly, the top three areas for negotiation - pay, hours and holidays - relate to employees' core terms and conditions of employment.

Chart 3: Areas of negotiation with unions

Areas of negotiation with unions

n = 92 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Trade union facilities

The Acas code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities states that there is no statutory right for facilities to be provided for union representatives - except for representatives engaged in duties related to collective redundancies and the transfer of undertakings. However, employers should, where practical, make available to union representatives the facilities necessary for them to perform their duties efficiently and to communicate effectively with their members, colleague union representatives and full-time officers.

Chart 4, below, lists the range of facilities provided by employers.

Chart 4: Facilities for trade unions and trade unionists

Facilities for trade unions and trade unionists

n = 92 organisations.
Source: XpertHR.

Our research

This report is based on original research examining how employers work with trade unions, carried out online in September and October 2013. Responses were received from 123 organisations, employing more than 300,000 people. The breakdown by economic sector is as follows:

  • 54 (44%) are in private-sector services;
  • 27 (22%) are in manufacturing and production; and
  • 42 (34%) are in the public sector.

Broken down by workforce size, the respondent organisations comprise:

  • 37 (30%) with between one and 249 employees;
  • 38 (31%) employing between 250 and 999; and
  • 48 (39%) with 1,000 or more employees.

The largest organisation employs 40,000 people. The average number employed is 2,442 and the median number is 550.

What should I do now?

See How to > How to avoid a dispute escalating into industrial action if you are concerned that a dispute may be close to becoming industrial action.

Use Policies and documents > Trade union recognition procedure if a trade union makes a request to the Central Arbitration Committee for compulsory recognition.

See How to > How to deal with trade union derecognition to understand the statutory framework for derecognising a trade union.