Jon Coley tells HRNews about Unite’s strategic change of direction and why employers should consider reviewing their industrial relations strategies

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    Are we seeing a new model for trade unionism? Are unions adopting a more strategic focus? The Unite union appears to be going that way so what, if anything, should employers be doing in response? We will come onto that shortly.

    Unite is the UK’s second largest trade with over 1.4 million members across an array of sectors including construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics, and many other sectors. Back in October at the union’s Policy Conference its new leader Sharon Graham spoke of Unite becoming a ‘Vanguard for’ change’. She declared: ‘For most of our heritage unions, structures were put in place 100 years ago. We’ve moved on - we’re now dealing with multinational employers. We need to bring them to the table.’

    The left-wing Social Review magazine sets out how she plans to do that through a programme called ‘Combines’. The term refers to groups of shop-floor activists organised along industrial and sectoral lines for the purposes of action and negotiation, pooling expertise. They explain how Unite is currently structured along regional lines, meaning that workers are organised by geography which can lead to discrepancies between the regions. The change of focus - onto the employer – is designed to unify the union’s strategy and agreements with the same employers across all regions, sharing tactics and coordinating action. 

    Central to Unite’s overall plan is leverage - a strategy of escalation that exists outside of typical industrial action designed to apply pressure on a particular employer and, generally, make life uncomfortable. Before Christmas she tweeted a video of herself explaining the rationale behind it:

    Video – Twitter – Sharon Graham

    Sharon Graham talked about targeting the top 10 employers in every sector where Unite has a presence - construction, manufacturing, transport, logistics, and many more - and, of course, that includes many of our clients so let’s get reaction to that. Jon Coley has been working in this arena for decades and I had the chance to ask him what employers can do in light of that challenge: 

    Jon Coley: “One of the things that, if I was an employer now, I'd be looking to do, is to look at what my industrial relations strategy is, what my relationships are with the trade union, and to think about contingency planning as we go into the months ahead, for instance. There are a number of inflationary pressures out there in the marketplace, a number of job vacancies not filled, so the trade unions in some sectors may be looking to exercise their muscle in relation to negotiations with employers and employers will be well prepared, therefore, to have their industrial relations strategy to hand, to have a look at what they could do if they are faced with industrial action. Indeed it may not even be industrial action. A number of the trade unions have had a change of leadership at the top and they may be looking to see some early campaigns, some early victories, in the sectors in which they are strongest. An example might be the change in leadership of Unite. The new general secretary of Unite used to be in charge of the leverage department and it raises the question therefore as to whether, if they are taking action, that action may be more focused on leverage rather than the traditional strike action route. Will they be looking at other opportunities to try and extract from the employer what it is that trade union wants. Maybe, for instance, seeking to protest outside a client's premises, or a supplier’s premises, looking at ways of embarrassing the employer rather than simply going to the default of strike action.”

    We are currently working with a number of clients on their contingency planning so do get in touch if you would like help with that.

    As for Sharon Graham, she was elected as Unite’s new General Secretary in August last year replacing Len McCluskey. A year ago, last January, the public service giant UNISON, the UK’s biggest union, also elected a new leader, also a woman, Christina McAnea. In September Ed Goodwyn talked to this programme about the direction taken by those two leaders – that’s ‘Is the industrial relations landscape changing?’ and is available for viewing now from the Outlaw website.