While employers may resent the trade unions on days when there’s a strike, an active union means better communication with staff and leads to better decision making by leaders

I went to see the film Pride at the weekend. If you have seen Brassed Off or Billy Elliot you will know what to expect. It’s a uplifting film set during the miners’ strike, a turning point in industrial relations.

As a social worker I joined the marchers, but as a manager I repeated the mantra of the time: “managers should be allowed to manage”. We believed the unions had too much power, were anti-management and anti-change, and that employees were too ready to lodge a grievance if management tried to tackle them about their time keeping, quality of work or absenteeism.

In disciplinary proceedings trade union representativess supported their members whether they were right or wrong; mitigation even for gross misconduct was the failure of management to provide frequent supervision and regular training update, irrespective of the person’s history of avoiding both! The lyrics of a popular song at the time were “you don’t get me, I’m part of the union”, and that’s very much how it felt if you were in management in the public sector.

My views on trade unions changed dramatically not because of the miners’ strike or Margaret Thatcher, but because I went to work for a housing association that didn’t recognise trade unions. At first I thought, what do HR do all day? And how easy it must be to manage staff. Turns out those trade unions are good for organisations.

Better scrutiny, better decisions

In the absence of a union in a national organisation with a disbursed workforce it was very difficult to communicate with staff. As a senior manager you ended up sending an email to managers and relying on them to get the message across. It was a top-down, one-way system in which you had little idea how the message was being greeted on the front line.

‘There has been much talk of empowering employees but we have spent the last three decades disempowering their trade unions’

Free of any union rep questioning their decisions, managers didn’t bother with people management skills, didn’t consult or cooperate with staff, and certainly didn’t inspire staff. They didn’t need to; they simply issue a directive saying “this is what we are going to do”.

Senior management also became lazy and didn’t feel the need to talk to other managers other than to say this is what the board wants or the chief executive has decided.

But you get better decisions if they are scrutinised. Some obvious pitfalls are avoided if those required to deliver the policy can ask questions, because one thing is for sure: senior management will have been sketchy on the detail.

Sliding scale of power

You also get a higher standard of people management if managers’ behaviour is modified by the knowledge that a grievance hearing will subject their behaviour to an impartial “reasonableness” test. The employee may feel that the manager is in the stronger position but most managers notice a definite shift of power if a union rep is putting the case, HR are critical and a senior manger is acting as an impartial chair.

‘An active union is a good counterbalance to overconfident management’

A colleague of mine once responded to a group of managers complaining about a trade union by saying that they got the union they deserved. By which she meant that it you see your staff as skivers who do as little as they can get away with and if you think they should do whatever you tell them then it’s hardly surprising that the union describes management as arrogant, bullying, confrontational and secretive. Her views were not well received at the time but she was right; you reap what you sow 

There has been much talk of empowering employees but we have spent the last three decades disempowering their trade unions. The results are there for all to see: demotivated staff, bullying managers, out of touch leadership, more trusts in financial trouble, growing waiting lists and poor standards of care.

It time to rehabilitate the public sector trade unions and recognise that an active union is a good counterbalance to overconfident management, and that a workforce that feels valued provides better care.

Blair McPherson former director of community services, author and commentator on the public sector