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UNISON and unions’ wider role

UNISON works with both employers and employees to ensure that public service workers receive a fair deal. A big advantage for any worker represented by UNISON is that, like many other unions, it takes part in ‘collective bargaining’. This means that when negotiating with a management group the union represents the whole workforce. This gives workers far greater negotiating strength.

Single Union Agreements help to strengthen this negotiating role. A Single Union Agreement is when all the workers in a particular business, or even a particular industry, agree to be represented by just one union that the employer is happy to recognise. Both employer and employee stand to benefit from this arrangement. The employer benefits by having to negotiate with only one union. The employees benefit by knowing that, in dialogue with management, workers ‘ representatives speak with one, credible voice.

As a public service union, UNISON is particularly concerned about the two-tier labour force that has developed in the public services. Under government rules for competition, private sector companies have been allowed to bid for public sector work. They may, for example, win contracts to clean hospitals or schools.

Thanks largely to unions’ efforts in the past, people working for public sector businesses are likely to have better pay and conditions than those working for most private sector firms. Being profit oriented, many private sector firms offer their employees fewer holidays, inferior sickness and pension rights, poor job security and lower pay. They may also be more willing to compromise on health and safety issues because of the cost of making improvements.

In this particular matter, UNISON is looking to achieve one of two outcomes. It wants either to eliminate private contracts within the public sector, or to ensure that all workers, whether public or private sector, are paid on a common pay scale and enjoy the same terms and conditions in their employment contracts.

Trades Unions represent workers’ views not only to employers but also to government. This is especially important for UNISON as the government is the ultimate employer in the public sector. UNISON advises the government, both as a union in its own right and also as a member of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It also lobbies for what it sees as necessary changes in the law.

In UNISON’s view, it is vital for it to have a role in national policy making because it represents so many key workers in important industries. It also has a role in Parliament. UNISON sponsors some MPs and submits motions for discussion by Parliament.

Among the employment rights that UNISON has helped to secure are:

  • Working Time Regulations that protect workers from having to work excessive hours
  • the National Minimum Wage
  • improved (and better paid) maternity and paternity leave
  • protection against discrimination
  • protection from unfair dismissal.

UNISON can look to influence government policy by seeking manifesto commitments from the party in power. At the Labour Party’s recent national policy forum, for example, UNISON succeeded in reaching agreement on key issues in the workplace and, in particular, in the public sector.

The commitments include an end to two-tier workforces in the public sector; a government commitment to work in partnership with trades unions, and action in fields such as pension protection, professional development, and fairness at work. A full list of the pledges can be found at:

UNISON does not confine itself to promoting changes in the law. It will campaign for workers and members in many instances. It helps to provide legal advice and support for legal actions. It also advises members on individual and collective grievances.

One example of the union’s success is when, in June 2004, it won a total of £225,000 in compensation for 29 cleaning and catering workers. In 1998 they lost their jobs when a private contractor took over at a hospital group in Liverpool. However, the contractor had then advertised these jobs, but with poorer pay and conditions.

UNISON argued that the original workers should have been retained on their existing terms and conditions of employment. The Court of Appeal eventually heard the case and found in favour of the 29 workers. Had they been left to fight their own corner without union support, they would never have been able to afford either the legal advice or the time required.

UNISON feels that businesses should not be able to continue with practices that put workers’ health and even lives at risk. One change for which UNISON has long argued is for businesses to be made legally responsible for deaths caused by a firm’s carelessness or poor practice. The union is working to have a law enacted that creates an offence of ‘corporate manslaughter’.

This campaign began in 1988 when a young student was crushed to death by a mechanical loading claw on his first day at work as a dock labourer. Even though the firm involved could be prosecuted for negligence and for health and safety failures, courts were unable to convict any particular person or persons within the business for causing the young man’s death.

A government promise to introduce such a law was finally obtained at the September 2004 policy forum. A draft Parliamentary Bill was due to be introduced before the end of 2004. Drafting has proved difficult. There is little point in passing a law that courts find impossible to operate because of a lack of clarity and precision.

Unions are reluctant to resort to industrial action in order to solve a problem. They see it as a last resort after negotiations have failed. In any dispute in which UNISON becomes involved, it always tries to negotiate a solution by agreeing a compromise.

No sensible union will take any serious industrial action without its members’ permission and explicit support. Indeed, unions are now required by law to allow their members to vote on any proposed strike action prior to asking them to embark on it. Even then, there is a scale of industrial action activities before any sort of all-out strike action occurs.  Examples include:

  • bans e.g. on overtime working, weekend working or working anti-social hours
  • action short of strike action. This includes ‘working to rule’ i.e. working exactly to contractual conditions and ceasing to perform non-contractual tasks that rely solely on goodwill selective strike action. This involves a union in asking only certain key workers to strike or in limiting strike action to certain days in the week. The aim is to achieve maximum impact whilst keeping the cost of the action, to both the public and the union, within reasonable limits.

Sometimes disputes drag on. Only when all other avenues have failed will a union look to call a blanket (or ‘all-out’) strike. There is no guarantee that such action will always be short lived.

UNISON habitually works to prevent industrial action by improving workers’ pay and conditions before real trouble emerges. For instance, it successfully negotiated a fair deal with British Gas in November 2003. This was at time when workers’ existing conditions seemed under threat.

The new agreement gave workers improvements in some areas and essential protection in others. Joint roadshows with union and management were used to get the message across to workers. They also encouraged employees to join the union so that they were covered by any agreement on rights and responsibilities. More than 60 meetings were held.

Roadshows are just one of several methods that UNISON uses to gain publicity and support. It uses modern techniques to make its campaigns effective. These include:

  • stunts intended to attract press attention
  • demonstrations, rallies and lobbies
  • special events e.g. concerts, such as two held in Newcastle and Manchester as part of the campaign to introduce a National Minimum Wage.

UNISON exemplifies the role and work of a modern trade union. It protects its own members who deliver public services, and looks to ensure that all are treated fairly. It also runs campaigns to raise awareness and influence government. It campaigns both nationally and locally.

Locally, it works for individuals or groups, gaining for them better working conditions or compensation for unfair treatment. Nationally, it has encouraged many improvements, which either have become law or are in the process of doing so.