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Fanning the flames of co-operation

first_imgFanning the flames of co-operationOn 15 Apr 2003 in Personnel Today Unionshave a reputation for causing trouble, but they have also done a lot of workwith employers to improve productivity. Elaine Essery reportsTheproductivity gapEmployers,unions and individuals share a mutual interest in addressing the skills agendato help boost productivity. Providing learning opportunities through UnionLearning Representatives (ULRs) can provide a win-win-win situation – employersbenefit from enhanced skills, motivation and flexibility; unions boost theirmembership, status and influence in the workplace; and individuals get theskills they need to secure employment in a changing work environment.  ULRshave been in existence since 1998 when the Government set up a Union LearningFund (ULF) to foster a learning culture in the workplace. It created a networkof trained union reps and boosted trade unions’ capability to become learningorganisations by funding union learning projects. The ULF has supported over300 projects, over 150 accredited courses and qualifications have beenestablished, and 66 learning centres opened. Last month (March) the Governmentpledged a further £9m to enable unions to develop new training courses and learningcentres. More than 4,500 ULRs have been trained, rising to a possible 22,000across the UK by 2010. Oneof them is Tom O’Callaghan, a Transport & General Workers Union (T&G)learning rep with Metroline Buses in London. He helped set up the ‘Learning onthe Move’ partnership project which brought together the company, the union,SERTUC (the South- East Region TUC) Learning Services, the College of NorthEast London (CoNEL), the Department for Education and Skills and Transport forLondon. Metrolinedonated a double-decker bus which was converted into a mobile learning centreusing 11 PCs from CoNEL and a mini library of learning resources. Thebus travels between eight garages on a rota basis, offering staff training inIT skills. It has helped 140 employees gain accredited qualifications andstimulated the demand to progress to the European Computer Driving Licence –the Europe-wide IT qualification for non-IT professionals, accredited by theBritish Computer Society. CoNEL is also looking to provide basic Englishtraining linked to IT. “Bringinga classroom to the workplace has worked a treat. The eagerness is unbelievable,people are much more confident and it’s a great leveller,” saysO’Callaghan. “We’ve got engineers sitting next to bus drivers, next tocleaners, next to canteen staff, sitting next to supervisors learning basiccomputer skills.”  Absenteeismhad been a problem for the company but attendance has improved, as people donot want to miss out on learning. Other benefits include better communicationamong employees and between the employer and the union. “Itintroduces a different side of the trade union movement and has boosted ourmembership,” says O’Callaghan. Garagestaff development manager, Mick Hodges, says: “Relationships with thetrade union are better as we tend to discuss things and work together moreclosely. The project is a powerful motivator and there is more of a pro-companyfeeling because people can see we’re doing something for them. It’s alsohelping with staff retention.” O’Callaghanadds: “All members of the partnership are happy – it’s an win-winsituation all round.” Employersare not always ready to embrace the union-led learning agenda, however.Engineering union Amicus has a national network of ULRs and organisers toencourage people to become learning reps, but it has encountered resistancefrom employers who consider training to be a burden on business, according toAmicus director Richard O’Brien. Ina sideswipe at the Government and firms that fail to embrace traininginitiatives he says: “The usual suspects that sign up to any initiativefor investing in training are always there and the Government always trots themout as an example that employers are willing to get on board.” However, headds, the companies that really need to take action don’t. O’Brienalso criticises the failure of UK businesses to invest in the skills of theworkforce and new technology.  This viewis endorsed by the Engineering Employers’ Federation, whose report Bridging theContinental Divide, which is due to be published today, focuses on comparisonsof investment in the UK, Germany and France.Now,Amicus has moved away from the work it did on productivity in the 1980s andearly 1990s. O’Brien says: “I think every ounce of productivity has beensqueezed out of workers in terms of how long they work, how few breaks theyhave and how many breakdowns. The problem remains not with the workforce, butit’s dependence on employers – and managers, in particular – realising thatthey have to make an effort.”Whereunions have contributed to increased productivity, recognition and reward havenot always followed. Evidence submitted to the Government’s review into thefire service by the Fire Service Employers, under Sir George Bain, shows thatfirefighters’ productivity has improved by 55 per cent in the past 10 years,compared with a productivity increase in the economy overall of 19.5 per centfor the same period.FireBrigades Union (FBU) spokesman Tom Sibley, says: “The FBU has contributed agreat deal to productivity in that there is a lot of workers’ control overoperations and the service operates very much on goodwill. People are preparedto be flexible and take on unusual demands and our members have always beenanxious to train in all the latest technologies.”  Inaddition to its traditional firefighting role, the service has taken on manyextra responsibilities including flood relief, road traffic accidents, cliffand river rescue and anti-terrorism – despite a shortfall of nearly 5,000staff  at the end of March 2003,according to Fire Service Statistics 2002, which is published by the CharteredInstitute of Public Finance and Accountancy. Modernisation,one of the stumbling blocks in the current pay dispute, is ongoing and receivesgeneral FBU support. The union has contributed to modernisation initiatives inareas such as personal development, rank structure review and review ofstandards of fire cover. It has also pioneered reform in areas of equalopportunities and community fire safety. “Ourmembers are rightly very proud of their record. We take a ‘can do’ approach toall we’ve been asked to do but it’s not acknowledged or recognised in terms ofthe rewards,” says Sibley, who blames the Government for blocking theemployers’ proposed pay award last year, leading to prolonged strike action. Givingemployees choice in their work patterns can affect productivity. A number ofunions are tackling work-life balance issues and demonstrating benefits formembers and employers alike. The banking and finance sector has been leadingthe way through its union Unifi. Barclaysis one of the major employers which has a partnership agreement with Unifi –around 40 per cent of Barclays’ 60,000 employees in the UK are members of theunion. “We’vebeen doing a lot around flexible working and are in the process of introducinga progressive tranche of parental policies. Unifi have been very much part ofthat process,” says employee relations director at Barclays, PeterDugmore. Hebelieves that permitting flexibility increases the business’s ability torecruit and retain better people who are happy and comfortable in their roles –and research shows that happy people are more productive. “Theunion is generally supportive in what we do. At the end of the day, if Barclaysis more successful, it means Unifi members will be more successful,”explains Dugmore. Anotherproject launched for mutual benefit was ‘OurTime’, a jointly funded work-lifebalance project which the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) initiatedin partnership with the Inland Revenue. The union’s aim of exploring flexibleworking arrangements for its members was harnessed to the business challenge ofdelivering a more accessible service and extended opening hours to the public.Three pilot projects were selected in the Sussex area. TheBrighton Enquiry Centre sought to open for an extra three hours one day a weekand for four hours on a Saturday and used OurTime to test whether this could beachieved using volunteers who chose to work the new hours for their ownwork-life balance reasons. Another PCS scheme, The Worthing Telephone Unit, wassimilarly selected as it aimed to operate an extra half-hour each weekdaymorning plus an additional three hours on two evenings a week. A third pilotwas run to test the impact of greater staff flexibility in a non-customerfacing team and to counter any perception that OurTime was a management ploy toobtain extended hours ‘on the cheap’.Atraditionally adversarial culture had to be overcome for the partnership towork but, despite initial apprehension, the project was a success. The employerachieved the objective of extending opening hours through volunteers and learnta lot about how to manage flexible working. “Productivityhas improved in terms of linking productivity with morale. People have shownthemselves to be more willing to take on more and different tasks to help thebusiness,” says Christine Payton, Sussex Area operations manager for theInland Revenue. “We’re now setting up a group to look at the benefits ofbeing more flexible and extending it across the Sussex area. The director ofsouthern England  is also looking toidentify other areas where flexible working can be introduced.”  OurTimeprovided the opportunity to integrate work-life balance with lifelong learning.The union’s goal of establishing a learning network was achieved through theprovision of joint learning access points in Brighton and Worthing. “Asfar as management was concerned, learning centres were a way of showing we werewilling to give something,” explains Payton. “It’s like having anemotional bank account: if you pay things in, people are more likely to givethings out in the end. You have to show something up front.” www.tuc.org.uk/newunionismwww.eef.org.uk Comments are closed. 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