Power of unions has crumbled with rise of HR
“HR has shifted considerably from a welfare, protective and ethical role to a situation where managers are becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance links. That is what managers are there to do but, at the same time, there is an ethical responsibility.”
He says the solution is moving away from a “hierarchical model” towards “lower-level” empowerment and engagement. “Rather than a power-play in one department” – be it HR, marketing or accounting – “there needs to be diversity and inclusion”. He notes: “The buzzword now is ‘employee engagement’. But management and employers presume they can turn on a tap and have their employees engaged. In fact, engagement is something employees give to the company if they want to.”
Employers are not just seeking engagement but an unprecedented level of “emotional” commitment, he says. In front-line services from supermarkets to airlines and call centres, “you have to make customers feel that they are special. This turns out to be extremely demanding as you have to engage them on an emotional level. There is an intensity to the work which can leave people drained.”
Are workers now left to navigate such problems individually? Or is there still a role for collective action?
Dr Dundon points out unions are far from dead. While the proportion of workers in unions has dropped, “absolute” membership numbers have stayed relatively stable, falling from 1.52 million in 2004 to 1.49 million last year. Moreover, the proportion of unionised workers in services – a growth area – has remained unchanged at about 35 per cent. In contrast, the proportion slipped from 34 to 26 per cent in industry, and from 15 to 9 per cent in agriculture.
‘Male, stale and pale’
Traditionally, unions have had an image of being “male, stale and pale” but “this is changing”, Dr Dundon says.
They now offer language classes for migrant workers.
The main difficulty for unions, he says, “is employees are increasingly questioning their value, and increasingly unions are not demonstrating their value to the employee. With the power shift that’s going on, it is easier for workers to dismiss the role of collective action. But the generality is unions have a lot to offer if they can fine-tune for particular circumstances.”