All change in UK trade unions: the impact on business

08 Jan, 2021

Key Points 

  • Within the last nine months, there have been General Secretary elections in three of largest UK trade unions. At GMB and UNISON, moderate candidates won. The Unite election was won by Sharon Graham, a left-winger more focused on industrial activism than politics. 
  • We expect that this new leadership landscape will see party-political activity by the unions giving way to a more strident approach to industrial relations in some areas – particularly the “gig economy”.  
  • But in most cases the major unions’ more moderate leaders will want to grow membership through constructive, collaborative industrial partnerships. 
  • Their less ideological, more politically moderate outlooks should increase the influence of trade unions both within the Labour Party and potentially with the Conservative government. 
  • Overall, the opportunity for business to influence trade unions will increase. By so doing companies can influence both Labour and government policy, and the business environment. 

Context: the changed UK trade union landscape 

UNISON, Unite and GMB are the UK’s largest unions, with a combined membership of over 3 million. In early June, Gary Smith was elected General Secretary of GMB. Smith is a moderate, rooted in the GMB ‘establishment’. At UNISON, the new moderate leader Christina McAnea was elected in January. However, more recent UNISON internal elections were won by Left candidates, so her room to manoeuvre may be more constrained than Smith’s. In general, though, General Secretaries have considerable executive autonomy. 

The election in late August of new Unite General Secretary, Sharon Graham, surprised almost all commentators. She defeated the continuity left candidate Steve Turner and the moderate, Gerard Coyne. Graham is on the left but decidedly more focused on industrial rather than political issues (as are Smith and McAnea). 

If either Coyne or Turner had won in Unite, the national political ramifications would have been considerable. But Graham’s campaign, and her career to date, avoided explicit engagement with Labour factional politics, focusing instead on the “shop floor”. This means the political implications of her victory may be limited. There is a good chance that under Graham, Unite activity will take the shape of “guerilla” industrial activism against high-profile companies 

At the far-left end of the union movement, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), has been consulting members since the start of the year on the possibility of disaffiliating from the Labour Party. Although they have not yet reached a decision, this may prefigure a trend reminiscent of twenty years ago, with more militant unions disaffiliating from Labour and leaving the main space to more moderate voices.  

The rest of the trade union landscape is comparatively static. Other large Labour-affiliated UK trade unions, USDAW and the CWU, have had stable leaderships for some time.  

Risk of industrial activism 

The changes in the trade union landscape will see greater focus on industrial rather than political activities. The focus in recent months on fire-and-rehire provides an insight into what trade union priorities now look like. Although the fire-and-rehire campaign has a political component, it is fundamentally about organising in the workplace for improvements in working conditions, rather than a political project. 

A less politically extreme climate should be positive for productive engagement between businesses and these unions – but not uniformly so. The targeted, confrontational “guerilla” approach to workplace issues on which Sharon Graham built her reputation demonstrates the importance for firms of avoiding being in the firing line. Companies should avoid getting embroiled in issues on which union leaderships (particularly Unite) are tempted to ostentatiously “stand up for their members”. This may extend beyond firms where unions already organise. In recent months, the future of work and the gig economy have been focal points. 

A constructive impact on policymaking 

If a more constructive stance is taken by the unions overall, however, this will begin to rebuild their credibility in policy circles, particularly within Labour as the party seeks to reposition post-Corbyn, but also with a government keen to consolidate its new working-class base.  

The Labour membership is still broadly supportive of Keir Starmer and the new trade union landscape is favourable. This insulates him almost completely from the possibility of removal as leader before the next election. Recent changes within Starmer’s office have reinforced the shift towards a more experienced, “Blairite” and business-friendly approach to politics, which is likely to be reflected in party policy. Labour is focussing on specific policy areas, such as the future of work (now led by Deputy Leader Angela Rayner), prioritising better messaging, developing more effective policy proposals, and continuing to detoxify the party’s public image. 

The pandemic showed that the unions are open to constructive engagement with the Conservative government on areas of mutual interest (a majority of Unite and GMB members are not Labour voters). But even under less “political” leadership, union connections to Labour-run deep, so such cooperation will remain limited to areas that fit the union agenda. For example, they are likely to support increased infrastructure investment, but will instinctively oppose post-Brexit deregulation. Overall, the UK trade union movement’s shift to a more politically moderate outlook should help increase its often-underestimated influence on government policymaking.  

Conclusion: opportunities to influence 

As the influence of trade unions increases in policy and political circles, they will materially impact the business environment – using their campaigning and industrial power to influence wider business and employment policy and politics. This can create new opportunities for businesses to shape Labour and Government policy through constructive engagement with trade unions, particularly on issues like working conditions and employment rights. 

But it also requires a new approach to managing trade union engagement; blending traditional industrial relations with policy, public affairs and regulatory expertise to create the right environment for your business to succeed.  

Siôn Simons is a Partner at Flint and leads Flint's trade union work. To find out more about how Flint can help you navigate the risks and opportunities of these developments get in touch

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