The end of the 20th century experienced a decline of traditional approaches to labour and a huge growth of the service sector, which coincided with a constant increase in membership in the union. This resulted in a growth in a new form of work organisations and utilization of human relations practices, which gave the grounds for a win-win situation between the employer and employee. According to Aidt and Tzannatos (2002), this contributed to the inception of employee/labour contracts as a concept, which broadened the studies concerning industrial relations from the focus of the union and integrated with other aspects of employment contracts, including personal contracts, and non-unionised workplaces instead of agreements.
The emerging labour relations model recognized that organizations could be successful by raising skills in a competitive business environment as a way of creating sustainable advantage and therefore establish a secure future for employees in case of their voluntary cooperation. According to Bryson, Charlwood and Forth (2006), this translates into efficient reciprocally agreed performance. In addition, it also translates to knowledge and comprehension of employee ambitions with consideration of the voice of employees. According to Fitzgerald and Hardy (2010), employees express their voice in several ways and via two channels, which include trade unions and employee representatives. Trade unions refer to an organization of employees with the common aim of protecting the integrity of its trade and achieving higher benefits for employees. Employee representative refers to an elected member with the high standing in an organization. In light of the changes in the employee/labour relation, the general objective of this paper is to discuss the changes in the relationship between the organisation and trade unions. In order to achieve this objective, the paper focuses on identifying the roles of trade unions and employee representatives (shop steward).
According to Taylor and Bain (2001), trade unions can perform two major kinds of primary actions. The first one is large-scale practical actions by all union members, including employee strikes and synchronized industrial actions (Fitzgerald & Hardy 2010). It is significant to assert that these strikes and industrial actions can only be initiated through a properly conducted voting process involving union members. As a result, they can only occur when members of the union differ with any employer action. In 2009, for instance, a trade union participated in an industrial action against the Total Oil Company that was employing foreign contractors at its Lindsey Oil Refinery regardless of Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) prohibition to use foreign contractors (Fitzgerald & Hardy 2010). Subsequently, it is arguable that trade unions take actions when a verbal or written contract between workers and employers has been broken. The second type is large-scale actions for employees. These actions include legal assistance mentioned and the provision of services, including unemployment benefits and sick pays (Fitzgerald & Hardy 2010).
Another role of trade unions is collective bargaining (Taylor & Bain 2001). Trade unions have been traditionally developed in order to provide equal bargaining power of employers, who have had a capability of exclusively setting the terms and conditions of pay, such as salary and wages, and employees, who have been at the mercy of employers (Wallis, Stuart & Greenwood 2005). Trade and labour unions represent employees in a certain industry negotiations with employers. Because unions consist of a group of employees, they tend to have a greater voice than an individual employee does. Previously, the bargaining unit might include all employees, though it usually includes only certain categories of employees. According to Taylor and Bain (2001), collective bargaining is significant in a semi-skilled and unskilled working environment where employees might not be aware of the industrial pay rates, and therefore are incapable of bargaining effectively. This has ultimately resulted in an extent of organizational separation between wage negotiation and daily practices.
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Bryson, Charlwood and Forth (2006) cite that trade unions provide employees with significant rights that they would not have possessed as single individuals. Among the rights accorded to employees is the right to participate in a strike. Whereas no trade union or individual in the United Kingdom has the right to strike, striking is also not a criminal offense, but a civil one (Taylor & Bain 2001). As a result, if a person decided to strike, he or she would become liable for losses incurred by the employer because of the strike action. Nonetheless, a vote conducted in employees’ labour union safeguards respective members of union from the liability incurred for their actions, which effectively gives them the right to strike (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006).
Trade unions play an important role in improving the welfare of employees. They engage both the government and employers in order to lobby for better terms and conditions for employees. They represent the interests of employees, such as a higher pay for trade unions members, reasonable job schedules, work-life balance, and job security. Some authors have asserted that discrimination at workplace has reduced partly because of this role of unions. In the UK, for instance, trade unions have given employees dignity in the workplace. According to Fitzgerald and Hardy (2010), labour unions have continued playing a significant role in setting wages, namely, union members get a considerable wage premium. In the UK, the premium has considerably fallen in the recent years. For instance, in a study conducted by Wallis, Stuart and Greenwood (2005), the wages of unionised members were higher by about five percent than those of non-unionised members.
According to Taylor and Bain (2001), employee representatives can be selected by other fellow employees or by the management. Their roles significantly vary, though most of them pass on information within the workforce, give to and receive information from the organizational management or employer (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006). The management or employer also consults them concerning certain workplace issues. According to Wallis, Stuart and Greenwood (2005), employee representatives operate mainly in two forms of organizations. The first one is employers who do not acknowledge any labour union for collective bargaining purposes. The second one is employers who acknowledge labour unions with respect to certain employees, but not all of them.
According to Bryson, Charlwood and Forth (2006), the majority of the legal roles to consult employee representatives seem to arise from unique scenarios, including large-scale redundancies in business transfers or large-scale redundancies. As a result, if an employer does not fully recognize trade unions, he or she might have to choose an employee representative whenever these unique scenarios arise (Wallis, Stuart & Greenwood 2005). Nevertheless, this does not preclude the likelihood of having an employee representative on a permanent basis. Having employee representatives on a permanent basis has some benefits. First, it eliminates the role of organization to arrange the election of employee representatives when a legal duty arises. Secondly, such organizations can easily consult and inform their employees concerning business performance on an ongoing basis (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006). Thirdly, permanent employee representatives enable organizations to implement an inclusive management style, which, in turn, enhances performance and commitment of employers.
Employees can consult their representative in several cases, including collective redundancy situations. According to Aidt and Tzannatos (2002), collective redundancy refers to a situation when the employer plans to make more than 20 employees redundant at one establishment in a three-month period. Representatives can also consult in case of employees transfer from one employer to another; an employer proposition of dismissing 20 or more workers because of contract differences; and certain changes concerning personal and occupational schemes (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006).
Based on the geographical scope and size of an organization, management might also have to set up ongoing information and consultation (I&C) planning with the employees (Wallis, Stuart & Greenwood 2005). If employees have a valid issue, they are entitled to negotiate an I&C agreement with the organization. If management of the organization receives a valid issue from employees, it can elect or appoint a representative (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006). As a part of the I&C agreement, the management might decide to consult and inform employees via I&C representatives (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006). If an organization wishes not to inform and consult, it can still come to a voluntary agreement with employee representatives. They can agree on ways to assist in strengthening both employees’ and management’s comprehension of workplace issues; make views of employees known to the management; and assist in creating an environment of mutual trust between the management and employees (Wallis, Stuart & Greenwood 2005). The latter therefore improves workplace relations.
Similar to trade unions, employee representatives also support employees. Employees have the right to be accompanied by a labour union official (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006). The union or its certified member can employ a labour union official on full-time basis. In non-unionised organizations, employees select representatives to serve as their companions. The benefit of representatives is that they are always familiar with the issues and employees environment (Bryson, Charlwood & Forth 2006).
Both employee representatives and trade unions act as intermediaries between employees and the employers. Trade unions participate in resolving conflicts related to workplace. Topical researches on workplace conflicts have pointed out the positive role played by labour unions in supporting conflict resolution process at workplaces. According to Bryson, Charlwood and Forth (2006), independence from the management and greater dispute resolution expertise and skills enabled union representatives to play a more constructive role in disciplinary proceedings in comparison with non-union representatives. Studies conducted by Fitzgerald and Hardy (2010) indicated that management in unionised organizations have often felt that union representatives significantly assisted in ensuring a procedural and effective way of taking disciplinary actions, that might otherwise have been the case. According to Wallis, Stuart and Greenwood (2005), such results are more likely in workplaces where there is a sufficient trust level between managers and union representatives. Employees consult employee representative for any issues related to them, whereas employers raise issues through their representatives.
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The modern labour relations model recognizes that organizations will be effective by raising skills in a competitive business environment as a way of creating sustainable advantage. It can therefore establish a secure future for employees in case of their voluntary cooperation. By conducting an analysis on secondary materials, this paper found out that contemporary approach to labour and employee contracts has undergone significant transformations. The main objective of this paper was to examine how labour and employee contracts have changed in terms of the roles of unions. These transformations mainly concern the roles of unions and employee representatives. The study has also found out that the major role of employee unions is to perform collective bargaining. They represent employees in negotiations with the employers. They also provide employees with significant rights, which they could not possess as single individuals. Among the rights accorded to employees is the right to participate in a strike. Trade unions have a role in improving the welfare of employees. They engage both the government and employers in order to lobby for better terms and conditions for employees.
The research found out that representatives mainly perform consultative roles. The majority of legal roles to consult employee representatives seem to arise from unique scenarios, including large-scale redundancies in business transfers or large-scale redundancies. Collective redundancy refers to a situation when the employer plans to make more than 20 employees redundant at one establishment in a three-month period. Similar to trade unions, employee representatives also assist employees. Employees can be accompanied by a labour union official when it is necessary.