Opinion: Hot Issue - Should more charities sign trade union recognition agreements?

Following the Barnardo's recognition agreement with Unison, the union predicted that more charities will have to follow suit as the sector's workers seek greater workplace representation.

YES - Campbell Robb, director of public policy, NCVO

Unionisation is central to establishing good employee relations that are based on the principles of consultation and representation. These principles also lie at the heart of our sector, which is dedicated to creating a fairer society. Most voluntary organisations already take maintaining positive relationships with their employees seriously. Union recognition not only creates a fairer environment for staff, but reduces the chances of relationships going wrong. Unionisation should be seen by trustees and senior charity managers as part of the improvement of their organisation's employment practice.

One of the main factors responsible for the relatively low union membership in the voluntary sector is the predominance of small organisations. Nonetheless, the 569,000-strong paid workforce is growing and we are operating in a competitive labour market. An organisation's reputation as an employer and its employment policies play an important part in attracting and retaining staff. Organisations simply cannot afford to dismiss the notion of signing up to a union recognition agreement. To do so not only puts them in a much higher risk environment, but goes against the voluntary sector's ethos.

YES - Jacqui Lait, Shadow Home Affairs Minister

I believe that such a decision is for the individual charity itself to take. That right should never be taken away. Should a charity decide to sign a recognition agreement, then it is illegal and wrong for anyone to be forced to join a trade union. Additionally, any employee must be free to negotiate their own contract if they wish,without having to join a trade union.

This question does bring us face to face with the need to clarify the use of the word 'volunteer'. Most people who donate to a charity believe that they are doing so to support those people who give their time for free, but the word 'volunteering' is now often used to cover both those people and paid staff.

Given that so much social policy is now delivered by charities, it is only logical that professionals are attracted to the sector, but it will come as a shock to donors to realise that genuine volunteering is in danger of becoming confined to fundraising.

The trustees of any charity considering whether to sign union agreements will have to take into account the effect on donations from the public following such a decision.

YES - David Coats, associate director of policy, the Work Foundation

In the right circumstances, all organisations can benefit from a relationship with a trade union. We found a strong correlation between union recognition and effective organisational performance. However, it has to be understood that recognition alone is not enough. The union has to be strong, valued by its members and respected by the employer. The worst of all worlds is where a union has sufficient influence to raise members' expectations but not enough to shape the employer's thinking.

There is also persuasive evidence to suggest that union recognition is associated with lower labour turnover, more professional management and more joint problem- solving activity. Furthermore, unions can improve the flow of information within organisations, building trust between employees and their employer. Organisations characterised by 'high trust' find it easier to get things done and are more likely to deliver sustainable change.

Charities would be foolish to ignore these benefits, but must also understand the conditions under which unions contribute to good organisational performance and employee motivation.

YES - Rachael Maskell, national officer, non-profit sector, Amicus

An organisation that recognises a trade union makes an investment in its most valued asset, its staff. Modern trade unions, like Amicus, bring with them knowledge and expertise on how to provide the best conditions for staff under the constraints that organisations operate; support individuals in difficulty in a professional and constructive way; and work in partnership with organisations to campaign on both professional and industrial issues through their political and campaigning interests.

Where a good partnership is formulated between the union and management, staff morale is higher, turnover falls, and conditions of work, policies and procedures are more relevant to the workforce. Initiatives from the learning and skills agenda, to addressing health and safety and equality issues, also become far more achievable.

Amicus has 1.3 million members enabling organisations with recognition to draw upon the human-resources experiences of tens of thousands of workplaces, seeking out best practice and avoiding the mistakes of others, through our trained representatives. This is far more effective and reflective of the staff than any staff council could ever hope to be.

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