Having a union representative in the workplace boosts job quality

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by Kim Hoque

Having a union representative in the workplace boosts job quality for employees by reducing their levels of stress, enhancing their job content and improving their work-life balance. These are the central findings of a study I recently published with Unite head of research John Earls and management scholars Neil Conway and Nick Bacon.

The article argues that the impact of onsite union representatives on job quality is important not just for workers but also for employers. In particular, better job quality is closely linked to higher job satisfaction, which in turn has been identified as an important antecedent of higher productivity, increased discretionary effort, lower workplace conflict, fewer quits and lower absenteeism.

The achievement of higher job quality thus has the potential to enhance a range of important socio-economic outcomes.

As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that the achievement of better job quality has been accorded significant political importance in recent years. For example, the European Union’s employment strategy has focused on the promotion of job quality (as well as job quantity) since its inception in the late 1990s. There is also growing concern about job quality in the UK given government policy drives for labour market flexibility.

By identifying a link between onsite union representative presence and job quality, therefore, our article has the potential to inform important current policy debates.

The article draws on a survey conducted by the Unite trade union of its members in the UK finance sector. It analyses 3,087 responses employed across 174 companies, with a large proportion of the respondents (41 per cent) being from the large banks, while 13 per cent were from large insurance companies.

Holding a number of factors constant including respondents’ gender, ethnicity, work status, age and salary, three of the four aspects of job quality under observation – job stress, work-life balance and job content – were more favourable where an onsite representative was present.

The positive association between onsite union representative presence and job quality was explained largely by the impact of union representatives in raising levels of collective voice. The results therefore accord with the ‘positive voice effects’ hypothesis posited by Harvard economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff. Under this theory, outcomes such as job quality would be expected to be better in unionised environments given the role unions play in utilising informal communication channels and collective bargaining processes to voice their members’ concerns to management, who then subsequently respond by making positive changes within the workplace.

Our research suggests that these collective voice effects will be amplified where onsite representatives are present, given their role in seeking out the views of members, listening to their concerns and bringing these concerns to managers’ attention.

We are, of course, not alone in making these arguments. For example, the government-commissioned Macleod Report on employee engagement, endorsed by former Prime Minister David Cameron, suggests that managers should listen to workforce concerns expressed via representatives, and that addressing these concerns will increase levels of employee engagement, thereby helping to deliver sustainable economic growth.

Similarly, the Arbitration and Conciliation and Advisory Service (ACAS) argues that union representatives play an important dispute resolution role, helping employers resolve conflicts and preventing the escalation of disputes to employment tribunals.

Our study found no evidence of an association between onsite representative presence and job security. This might be seen as unsurprising given that employer concessions to union demands for greater job security may lead to significant additional labour costs in the event of a downturn, hence employers may be particularly resistant to attempts to influence this aspect of job quality.  In addition, decisions on job security matters may also be beyond the sphere of onsite union representatives’ influence at a local level.

The findings have a number of important policy and societal implications, not least in that they suggest that onsite union representatives are playing an important role in indirectly boosting the socio-economic benefits that flow from higher job quality as outlined above.

They also suggest that recent government moves to undermine the ability of union representatives to carry out their role are misguided. These recent moves have taken a number of forms. For example, the Cabinet Office has sought to cut union representatives’ time off in government departments, and local authorities have been warned to cut back on union representatives’ time off.

Most importantly, the Trade Union Bill, which is widely recognised as the most significant change in collective labour law in Britain since the Trade Union Act 1984, originally contained ‘reserve powers’ for government ministers to restrict the paid time off public sector union representatives are able to take. This reflected government concerns over the wage cost implications of union representatives’ rights to time off, and its concerns that union representatives are frequently engaged in activities that foment discontent rather than seek to diffuse industrial action.

Although the government watered down the proposals when the Trade Union Bill passed into law by stipulating that the restrictions will not be imposed for at least two years to allow time for data collection from the relevant bodies, the worry remains that the introduction of restrictions has been postponed rather than abandoned.

Our hope, therefore, is that the research we have conducted will feed into future parliamentary scrutiny of the effects of union representatives’ rights to time off by arguing that the government has focused too heavily on the perceived costs while ignoring the value of the role onsite union representatives play.

As our research suggests, any future government moves to weaken onsite union representatives’ rights to time-off will reduce their ability to boost job quality via the enhancement of collective voice, and this in turn is likely to negate the indirect positive influence they have on a wide range of important socio-economic outcomes.

Kim Hoque is Professor of Human Resource Management at Warwick Business School. This article summarizes findings from Union representation, collective voice and job quality: An analysis of a survey of union members in the UK finance sector” in Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Keywords: onsite union representatives, trade unions, job quality, collective voice

Image: baltine via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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