Learning to live with the rise of the trade unions

Union membership is growing rapidly in the voluntary sector, and there has been more industrial action recently. John Plummer looks at the background to unionisation and what it means for the future of the voluntary sector.

As Britain's trade unions gather in Brighton this week for the TUC Congress, it's fair to say the voluntary sector won't be uppermost in their minds. The only item on the agenda about charities is one opposing their involvement in running public services. "There is no evidence that the third sector is able to deliver better public services," the agenda says.

But unions could soon feature more prominently in the voluntary sector landscape: over the past year, Unison has increased its membership in the sector by 10,000 to 60,000. This pales by comparison with its 1.4 million public sector members but, if the rate of growth is sustained, the number of Unison's voluntary sector members could soon be larger than the 100,000 it has in the private sector. Unite, Britain's other major voluntary sector union, also claims to have 60,000 members from not-for-profit employers; it says the figure is growing by 10 per cent each year.

Wave of industrial action

This year has also seen unprecedented levels of industrial action in the third sector. In February, the University and College Union, the country's largest union for academic-related staff, picketed the RNIB's headquarters over plans to close courses for visually impaired people and declared it had no confidence in management at the charity. In the same month, public sector union rows spilled into the voluntary sector when 350 Charity Commission staff, members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, went on strike.

In April, Unison called for strike action over pay at Scottish care charity Quarriers. Last month, a tribunal hearing resulted in housing association Pierhead Housing becoming the first non-profit organisation to be forced to formally recognise Unite as its trade union. Pierhead had accused Unite of "not being conducive to good industrial relations".

Earlier this month, Unison and Unite accused charities of being soft on bullying and intimidation. There has also been a rumbling dispute between unions and chief executives body Acevo over the extent to which charities should deliver public services. So when Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said in March that "Unison has always been a friend to the community and voluntary sector", some charity managers could have been forgiven for questioning his notion of friendship.

Managers who have been at the sharp end of union activism seem reluctant to relive the experience. Phil Robinson, chief executive of Quarriers, declined to be interviewed by Third Sector. The Shaw Trust, which provides employment services to disabled and disadvantaged people and which Unison accused this year of aping the profit-driven behaviour of private companies, would not comment either. Pierhead issued a short statement.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, which is commissioning a study of the relationship between unions and the sector, says charities are wary of speaking out for fear of reprisals. "There have been some unfavourable attacks on the sector and there is resentment that we are often lumped in with the private sector," he says. "A lot of our members are actually very keen to see good pay and conditions. The unions ought to be more supportive."

There is also a feeling that unions steeped in the public sector's ethos don't understand charities. No one in the sector disagrees that staff harassment should be stamped out, but there is a feeling that unions should show greater understanding of charities' obligation to be sensitive when dealing with vulnerable beneficiaries.

Pat Armstrong, executive director of the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations, attributes most union disputes to cultural differences rather than bad practice, and says the large number of staff transferring from the public sector exacerbates the issue.

"The public sector has a different way of tackling issues such as conditions of service and grievance and disciplinary procedures," she says. "The voluntary sector's ethos of caring and understanding means organisations bend over backwards to help. When they have to make the difficult decision to dismiss someone, things can get sticky."

However, Michael Sippitt, employment lawyer and managing partner of Clarkslegal solicitors, thinks the problem runs deeper. He predicts more disputes as more charities deliver public services and get trapped between meeting union wage demands and the pressure of fulfilling their obligations on often underfunded contracts.

"A union might not want the bad publicity, particularly if it affects vulnerable people, but it's got to protect its members," he says. "If it doesn't, what is it for? Once you get into the public sector, you join the public sector context of controlled budgets and greater militancy."

Charities, he says, should protect themselves by writing clauses into contracts that release them from their obligations if circumstances beyond their control, such as industrial action, occur. "If people buy a company, they do a fair amount of research, but when it's a case of contracting or outsourcing, the amount of due diligence applied might be less," he says.

Others are more optimistic. Barnardo's has a recognition agreement with Unison. Martin Narey, chief executive of the children's charity, says the relationship has been better than those he had with public sector unions during his five years as director general of the Prison Service.

"My experience of unions in the voluntary sector has impressed me greatly," he says. When Barnardo's announced it was getting rid of its final-salary pension scheme, Unison "took a grown-up role in accepting the overwhelming need to do it", he says.

However, Narey remains concerned by some trade unionists' opposition to charities running public services. "At the Labour conference last year, I listened with dismay to union members criticising charities delivering services," he says. "Public sector trade unions skilfully use the term 'privatisation' and think it's a simile for 'contestability'; it's not. They are threatened by competition. I'm very much of the view that competition is the way to improve the quality of public services."

Clash of cultures

Joyce Moseley, chief executive of young people's charity Rainer, described her organisation's relationship with Unison as "helpful and constructive", but also thinks unions need to wake up to the reality of charities delivering public services. "Just as I have had to change the way I operate as a public sector manager, they too will have to change to ensure a constructive long-term relationship," she says. "They need to understand the shifting plates and ride both tracks.

"Staff who come to work at Rainer come to work with young people. Of course everyone wants a decent wage, but they realise they are working in an environment where funding is not guaranteed. If staff understand that, unions also have to understand it. If they don't make that philosophical change there will be a clash of cultures."

Rainer has a recognition agreement with Unison for consultation purposes but not for collective bargaining. "Our income is precarious," says Moseley. "We don't want to get into negotiations on pay when we might have to say one year 'we can't afford to pay any increases'."

Trojan horse

Mike Short, national officer for the voluntary sector at Unison, says wage settlements should come before contracts. "Organisations should bid only for work they can afford to do," he says. "If they can't afford decent pay increases each year, they should not bid."

Unions, he says, "don't make unreasonable demands; we campaign for fair pay for everyone". Rising union membership could be a sign of rising discontent, he adds: "People often join unions at times of trouble."

As a voluntary sector spokesman in an overwhelmingly public sector union, Short is in a tricky position on the subject of charities delivering public services. Unison has suggested the third sector is being used as a Trojan horse, brought into the public sector under the guise of contestability only for private companies to take over later.

Short skirts around the issue by describing Unison as "a defender of the things the voluntary sector has always done well". The implication is that these things do not include running public services. Why not? "There is a danger that as organisations become more competitive they can't afford to act on their values," he says.

He highlights Unison's agreement with learning disabilities charity Dimensions as a model of good practice. The two organisations have agreed to pilot a workplace-learning partnership, which will look at how to meet the charity's training needs. Dimensions even distributes union membership slips with pay slips. "It isn't about agreeing with everything, because we won't," says Short. "But where there are disagreements, we have mechanisms for resolving them."

Short cites short-term funding and pay as two of the voluntary sector issues featuring most prominently on Unison's radar. Rachael Maskell, national officer for Unite, which has agreements with the NSPCC, the RSPCA and Oxfam, cites funding, skills and work-life balance.

"If organisations work closely with unions, there don't have to be disputes," she says. "But they have to recognise the value of their employees. We will make sure it's high on their agenda."

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