Public Sector Unions Deserve a Better Story

Hello PPMA members and friends

It’s said that politics is the art of the possible. But the art of politics is constructing persuasive popular narrative. The coalition government has mastered the narrative art to win over public opinion on deficit reduction and welfare reform. And ministers are now in the process of building a negative view of the trade unions in order to counter opposition to cuts in public services and jobs, such as displayed at Saturday’s TUC ‘A future that works’ rally in London.

We’ve been here before. A generation ago the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher spoke of trade unions as ‘the enemy within’ in an effort to buttress support for reform of employment relations. The Iron Lady was pushing on an open door. Unions had abused their role in the 1960s and 1970s and lost a lot of sympathy. There was thus only limited support for ideologically minded union militants like Arthur Scargill, who ultimately played into Thatcher’s hands. One can see echoes of misguided militancy in some of today’s union leaders too, most of whom represent public sector employees. But it’s short-sighted of government ministers to take advantage of this in order to portray the unions as a barrier to public service improvement at a time of fiscal austerity.

Britain’s public sector narrative typically swings from rose tinted (most recently on display when celebrating the NHS during the Olympics opening ceremony) to demonising. What we need instead is a realistic portrayal of committed managers and staff who work in often very challenging situations but who don’t always perform as well as the public expects and they themselves would ideally want. Performance improvement requires acknowledgement of this, a frank acceptance of mutual failure where it exists and, crucially, establishing trust and a genuine sense of shared purpose within public sector workplaces. Moreover, on the part of government and management it requires an agenda for reform that offers a positive role to trade unions.

Experience shows that responsible trade unions, working in partnership with employers, should be embraced rather than treated with suspicion. Unions can act as an important channel through which public and private sector organisations build strong engagement relations between management and workers that help raise organisational performance and improve the quality of working life. Despite the tabloid caricature, most union members want to behave in this way.

However, it takes two to tango, but at present the government, and it has to be said some public sector managers, seem happier to tread on the toes of potential partners than to engage in a mutual reform exercise. This only serves to diminish trust and strengthens the resolve of hardliners, which explains why public sector conflict has driven the number of working days lost to labour disputes to a 20 year high. Such disputes not only inconvenience the public but also usually descend into cat calling, often linked to opportunistic demands for curbs on the right of public sector workers to strike that merely serves to stir things up.

There must surely be a better way, though I concede that finding one will be difficult in the current tense climate of public sector employment relations. In my view the government has already made a big policy mistake by rushing to axe spending according to a narrowly political timetable. While the wisdom of this is a matter of debate amongst economists, I doubt if it will prove conducive to effective public sector reform in the long-run.

Although I’ve heard some public sector managers argue that shock therapy is precisely what our public sector workplaces need, others, probably the majority, are concerned that front-loaded cuts in budgets and jobs, alongside both pay restraint and changes to pension provision have already made it more difficult for managers to keep staff engaged in the process of restructuring. It would be great to hear PPMA members with such concerns to voice them more loudly. Even though they might not wish to demonstrate alongside the trade unions, they could help recast the narrative of public sector reform so as to offer a more progressive way forward for the public sector workforce and public service users alike.

John Philpott – Director of The Jobs Economist, an online consultancy.  He was until August 2012 Chief Economic Adviser to the CIPD

By | 2017-07-30T12:23:22+01:00 October 19th, 2012|Categories: Guest Blogger, John Philpott|2 Comments


  1. Richard Crouch 24th October 2012 at 9:49 pm - Reply

    I think John has written a very thoughtful piece here and many of us will resonate with his key points.

    The key is mutual respect,resonance and collaboration in dealing with the fiscal issues we all face. Denial is our worst enemy and it is in this we need I think to all be responsible in recognising and then working together for the benefit of our stakeholders. And perhaps that is where the tension lies as the trade unions key stakeholders are bound to be their members first, whereas the modern HR professional in public services should think of the tax payer as the key stakeholder. So where are staff in this and the answer has to be somewhere in the middle and this is where I think the HR profession really excels in being able to straddle such divides to try and reach a position of mutual benefit for all the stakeholders involved. And this requires a responsible approach and in my experience most trade unions are more often than not, responsible and serve as an invaluable resource for useful challenge and dialogue. And what makes this work? Effective relationships, mutual respect and open communication. During these high tension times, we need to keep focused on these important ingredients.

  2. Leatham 6th November 2012 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the thought provoking item John…I would say that the story is very different at a local level where there is generally a different feel with Trade Unions at a local level and a sense of working for the good of the community and organisation. Locally building effective partnerships built on mutual respect and ideally trust is the only way to bring about sustained and lasting change…however this kind of pragmatic, proactive view of the world as I see it probably doesn’t generate a good headline.

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