Power of unions has crumbled with rise of HR

It’s not that long ago that people used to “down tools” routinely over changes in the workplace: the shop steward would be called…

It’s not that long ago that people used to “down tools” routinely over changes in the workplace: the shop steward would be called in for talks with management before any work could resume.

How alien this must seem to young employees today, who are typically informed of workplace changes through chirpy, internal memos that trumpet their “empowering” benefits.

Consultation not negotiation

“Negotiation and bargaining have been relegated to consultation, and consultation has been devalued to communicating change,” says Dr Tony Dundon, senior lecturer in business and management at NUI Galway. While managers claim to be consulting their workers about things such as cuts or restructuring, in practice, “they’re engaged in a lower form of communication. Really, what they are talking about is things like intranets, email circulations, memos or briefing communications, where the employees themselves don’t have any input in decision outcomes.”


While this isn’t a universal phenomenon, he points to an Economic and Social Research Institute study showing only 48 per cent of workers in 2009 had been consulted before decisions were made affecting their work – a proportion virtually unchanged from 2003. Some 22 per cent of private-sector employees said they “hardly ever” received information on planned changes in the workplace, while 43 per cent hardly ever received information on sales, profits or market share.

The figures for consultation were “very low for a country based on a partnership model,” Dr Dundon remarks.

Hard-line trade unionists who criticised social partnership may be tempted to say “we told you so”. But the factors behind the declining role of collective bargaining in the Irish labour market are more complex, according to analysts.

Dwindling unions

First, there has been a long-term shift away from union membership, partly for cultural reasons. In the early 1980s, 60 per cent of Irish workers were in a trade union; last year this was down to 32 per cent.

Second, there has been a strengthening of individual rights through the transposition of EU directives, which allows workers to bypass trade unions and pursue their own cases under anti-discrimination and equality law. “A lot of regulation about rights in the workplace is individualistic and that makes it more difficult for collective representation to have a role,” says Dr Dundon.

Third, multinationals which moved to Ireland typically set up their own grievance procedures, encouraging workers to seek internal solutions with management rather than involving external unions.

Wily HR

Finally, and more contentiously, it could be argued trade unions have been outplayed by their wily opponents: the human resources managers.

“The influence of HR and its centrality to business decision-making had grown significantly as a result of the recession,” says Prof Bill Roche of UCD graduate school of business, who published a paper on the topic last year with Prof Paul Teague of Queen’s University Belfast, after surveying hundreds of managers and union officials. Prof Roche stressed, however, this “newfound power” is often overstated.

“During the boom, whenever HR people let their hair down at conferences, they liked to talk in very poetic terms about how they were business partners and were central to the transformation of work. But the truth is they were largely suppliers of recruitment and retention services.

“In the recession, that picture has changed and they have become – to a very significant degree – influencers in major sections but what they are doing is helping firms to handle the acute pressures of the recession.

“They know a lot, or should do, about how to roll out a redundancy programme, how to run short-term work programmes and how to keep the company out of trouble legally when they have to retrench, and that is where they are business partners. But if you ask are they really influencing things like company thinking on how to reposition human capital for recovery, the answer is ‘No’. They have been so busy working the pumps that that sort of stuff hasn’t arisen.”

Personnel as career ladder

He noted some union officials “would speak elegiacally” about former HR managers who had come from the ranks of long-serving staff. Now, “your average HR person is a young person with a master’s degree, and the job is simply a rung on the career ladder”.

Or indeed, the HR department may be outsourced, a trend which began prior to the recession and is set to continue, according to Brendan McGinty of Ibec. “There are a lot of more basic functions, like payroll, training and development, and even initial interviews in the recruitment process, that can be outsourced to release time to the HR professional.”

McGinty says there has been an “evolution rather than revolution” in the role of HR as it moved from a “transaction-focused” personnel department to an integral part of business aimed at “unlocking the potential” of human capital.

Dr Dundon, who is chief editor of the Human Resource Management Journal, agrees there has been “a significant shift” in the role of HR but not an entirely positive one.

“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.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column