Whilst it is fair to say that the presence of trade unions tends to be confined to larger organisations, trade unionism still thrives. With the consolidation of some of the UK’s biggest trade unions, it means they remain a powerful body in representing their members’ interests in the workplace.
At a superficial level, the extent to which an organisation may experience trade union involvement is likely to be an employee who wants to be accompanied to a disciplinary hearing by his/her representative. At the other end of the scale, however, some businesses will have forged working relationships with several trade unions (usually through collective or recognition agreements), or with Works Councils, or via ad-hoc arrangements whereby unions are not formally recognised but nevertheless co-exist and work constructively with the business.
These days, industrial action is rare, and something which only the largest organisations are likely to experience. That said, even a threat of a strike can be damaging as what tends to follow is a very public spat for the political and moral high ground.
Assuming the threat of a strike is real however, employers will need to act decisively. Initially the focus will be on conciliation, however at the same time the business will need to assess the benefits and risks associated with applying for a High Court injunction to prevent strike action. If a strike is imminent, then steps need to be taken to mitigate any adverse effect which will include decisions about carrying out dismissals, withholding pay and trying to galvanise non-striking staff to fill in for any manpower gaps.
Union activity can also arise when organisations are trying to negotiate voluntary recognition agreements or attempting to defend formal union recognition bids in the event that an application to the Central Arbitration Committee is made. Even those employers who are thinking about introducing Works Council agreements may still have to think about the role unions could play even if they are not formally recognised within the business.