OPINION: Hot Issue - Could the voluntary sector benefit from unionisation?

The Salvation Army has begun the process of striking a trade union recognition deal. Everybody thinks it's a great idea. In fact, we couldn't find anybody in the sector who didn't think so, at least publicly. But if that is the case, why is the voluntary sector still such uncharted territory for unions?

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory of Social Change


My experience shows that unionisation, if responsibly managed, benefits both employees and employers as well as the organisation as a whole. Voluntary organisations have a reputation for not being particularly good employers especially in terms of pay and conditions. This is particularly the case in smaller organisations. It isn't acceptable for voluntary organisations to pay less, have poorer working conditions or offer less training. Employees are often told it is due to factors beyond their control, namely funding restrictions but this isn't good enough. At a wider level, unions can lobby for funding and changes to legislation. Modern unions tend not to do this by antagonism but as a partner to employers. Unions can do a lot for employers, employees and the sector without individuals or organisations having to risk the wrath of funders who want all their money to go directly to their project or beneficiaries. The fact that an organisation is a charity does not mitigate its obligation as an employer.

Ian Cunningham, lecturer in HR management, Strathclyde University


There has been plenty of criticism about a lack of an employee voice in the voluntary sector.

Because those working in it have to be seen to be doing good, there is a danger that they are expected to put up and shut up with poor working terms and conditions. Union recognition gives them a voice. It also gives voluntary organisations legitimacy because by giving their staff rights they are seen to be practising what they preach in terms of doing good.

There are also benefits from a managerial perspective: it is much easier to manage staff through collective representation rather than by dealing with people on an individual basis. On the negative side, there are issues such as unrealistic pay claims and the impact of possible industrial action on service provision. However, in a recent Trade Union Congress survey, the voluntary workers reported higher levels of stress, bullying and violence against staff than other sectors. Greater union representation may begin to help to change this.

John Neate, chief executive, The Prostate Cancer Charity


Throughout my working life - first in the NHS and since in the voluntary sector - I have worked with trade unions, never feeling that unionisation was wrong in either principle or practice. As good political opposition makes for good government, so effective trade unionism can make for good management.

It can ensure that managers think hard about their decisions and choices, and encourage rigorous and fair implementation of employment policy and require managers to justify their actions. Employees should have the choice to be supported professionally in their dealings with their employers so that individually and collectively their interests are properly represented.

Ideally, I would want to handle relations with my staff in-house and would hope that good management practice would win employees' confidence, but I have no fear about involving unions in that relationship. I just ask for them to understand my type of organisation and its culture and know how to work within and enhance it.

John Burnell, director, Personnel Solutions


As the challenges facing the sector grow, there is an increasing need to consult with staff in an effective manner. Charity managers often find it frustrating that they can't establish useful mechanisms for involving their workforce in new developments.

Unions, while not replacing proper communications between managers and employees, can provide a very useful forum for representing collective views and adding legitimacy to the changes that charities need to introduce.

However, unions need to be sensitive to the particular challenges and culture of the sector. They cannot simply make demands without regard to affordability. Unions must demonstrate a commitment to the spirit of the stakeholder approach that has made the voluntary sector so successful. Established unions in the sector already know that, so let's try to keep recognition to these tried-and-tested partners, and recognise them where there is a groundswell to do so, without forcing the issue when there is not.

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