Blog: Trade Union Law Part 2 – How to get the best out of your trade union relationships

Anne-Marie Boyle, Senior Solicitor

In the first part of our trade union law series, we looked at the recent changes in TU law and how they could affect your business. This time we’re looking at the tricky business of maintaining a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with your TU.

At Menzies Law we have over 20 years’ experience of working with business clients and their recognised trade unions. We’ve probably seen most things that arise with these types of relationships – the good, the bad and the ugly. So, we have gathered our collective knowledge to create a list of our top tips for getting the best out of your organisation’s trade union relationship.

1. Remember that you are both working for the same mutual aim of improving organisational performance and sustainability, which in turn benefits both the business and employees

It can be easy to lose sight of this sometimes, particularly if your trade union relations are currently very much ‘us and them’. Remind yourself and your union that your aims which relate to improving working conditions, increasing performance and the sustainability of the business will in turn mean greater job security and a better place to work. In our view, things work better if the business and the trade union both acknowledge that the other has a legitimate and valued purpose.

2. Analyse the working relationship you currently have with your union

How would you characterise your union relationship? Is it friendly – this is definitely a good place to start, but is it too friendly?  At the other end of the spectrum, are relations toxic, combative? Or perhaps they are somewhere in-between – frosty? Distrustful? Wherever you are on the spectrum, does it need to change?

In our experience, the best working relationships are definitely on the friendly end of the spectrum, but they still remain professional and based on mutual respect where either side is prepared to challenge where it is necessary.

3. Toxic union relationships can be turned around – but it takes time and commitment

The reason why relations with a union within a particular organisation are bordering on the toxic is often long forgotten in the mists of time. If yours is one of them, it is time to shake it up. No-one gains from a relationship like this and as a business you are entitled to benefit from a professional working relationship with your union.  This cannot be solved overnight and will involve some time and commitment. One of our client’s relationships with their union was taken to the brink last year when their union brought industrial action over proposed changes to pay. A lot of trust and good-will disappeared as a result of this process, but one year on, they are happily working together sorting out a TUPE transfer. How have they managed this? By meeting face-to-face with the union after the industrial action was completed, acknowledging that they had all been through a difficult time and making a professional commitment to repairing their relationship for the good of the organisation and its staff.

4. Adopt an employee relations strategy – and stick to it

We have seen these developed in all sizes of businesses and they can be really effective. The very best ones ensure that the employee relations principles and processes are aligned closely with the company’s strategic goals: essentially, everyone is pulling in the same direction. Also, they emphasise the need for positive leadership, strong working relationships and meaningful consultation.  However, this type of good employee relations strategy does not appear over-night, nor is it created by one document. It will be a sizeable commitment for a business and one that will full need support from the Board.

5. In the words of Spandau Ballet – ‘Communication let me down, and I’m left here’

We all know it is true, but it is too often ignored – regular communication between management and the recognised trade union vastly improves the quality of the working relationship and minimizes conflicts. In our experience, if an employer is in constant communication with its union and involves them in formulating the best strategies to handle issues that affect the business, the employer and union can maintain a good, conflict-free working relationship. This doesn’t mean you should ignore your own workforce or leave the communication down to union. It is important for businesses, even with strong union relationships, to maintain the communication link with their staff, particularly where they might have a different stance or angle to present than the union.

6. Keep a regular review on your trade union documentation

We have seen some very old and crusty collective bargaining agreements in our time, dating back many years. Sometimes businesses can’t even find their collective agreements when we’ve asked for them.  For a living relationship, we are often surprised by how little thought is given to the actual documents governing the relationship. If your collective agreements are over five years old, we recommend that you dust them off and have a good look at them. Are they working? Are they fit for purpose? Do they properly reflect the working relationship you have (or more importantly, wish to have) with the trade union? If not, it is time to update them.

7. Know the law relating to trade union relationships – or know where to look for help

We’re lawyers, so we would say this, but… Trade union law is highly complex and covers everything from recognition and de-recognition, collective bargaining and statutory consultation, industrial action, collective agreements and contracts, and not forgetting right to time off work for trade union activities. Quite a list!  The more you know, the better equipped your operational managers will be to deal effectively with trade unions during the course of their day-to-day managerial activities.

8. And in the words of Depeche Mode – ‘People are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully’

Where people and human relationships are involved, it is hard to avoid bumping up against some psychology. As we have said above, your organisation’s relationship with its union is a ‘living’ one and when working best, your mutual aims will be aligned. As with any relationships, however, there needs to be investment to get the best out of it!  There will be certain people in your business who will hold the keys to the trade union relationship and you should consider – are they right for the job? Do they need some help? They might benefit from some specialised training to help them develop their relationship with the union. This could include:

  • Understanding the influence triggers that people respond to when making choices and how to appeal to their preferences
  • Understanding how you negotiate – is it a positive style (open, questioning, listening, being realistic) or a negative style (combative, point-scoring, personalising)?
  • Recognising different personality types and why some people are “difficult” to engage with.

If you’ve found this series on TU law helpful, and would like to find out more, or you need some advice for your business regarding TU relationships, or any kind of employment law, please get in touch by emailing or call 0117 325 0526.

Specialist trade union training event –  8 June, Leigh Court, Bristol

For managers and HR professionals working in companies with trade unions, we are holding a ‘not-to-be-missed’ TU law event in June, that will bring you right up to date with all TU law changes, and give you plenty of practical advice on getting the best from your trade union relationship.

The event will take place at Leigh Court, Bristol, Thursday, June 8th from 9.30am – 1pm. Email if you’d like to receive an invitation to this exclusive event.