Believe it or not, the unions are back - and it's good news

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IF I were a trade union official, getting ready to attend the 131st annual congress of the movement in Brighton next week, I would feel a bit more jaunty than usual - and not just because the long decline in membership seems to be over, or because the Government is passing some favourable legislation. No, something deeper is going on.

People at work, well beyond the traditional manual occupations, have come to realise that the old understanding between employers and employees - that, in return for hard work and commitment, staff would be looked after - has largely disappeared. In the new world of global competition, deflation, mergers and privatisations, employees find themselves at a permanent disadvantage.

As a result, feelings of insecurity at work are beginning to make many white-collar, administrative and professional people see for the first time that belonging to a trade union or association is a wise precaution. The days have long since passed when only manual workers would be laid off. In a survey of 20 establishments, large and small, public and private, recently carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the most commonly cited reason for valuing trades union or staff association membership was that it would provide "support, security and protection". Obtaining better pay did not specifically come up as a reason.

The authors of the report also published some typical comments: a white- collar worker in financial services said: "I felt that I needed to join because we were facing a redundancy threat last year and I felt more secure knowing there would be someone to back me up"; a white-collar worker for a government agency noted: "so the larger voice is there for us. And for advice".

It is not only the fear of redundancy that creates insecurity; it is changes in the nature of work. The constant demand for flexibility has meant that employees have had to be ready to vary the number of hours worked, and often take on a wider range of functions and even involve themselves in the responsibilities of team work. At the same time, job demarcations have been eliminated and management grades have been thinned out, or "de-layered". Now, to me, all this sounds an infinitely better set of circumstances than the traditional, hierarchical structure. I applaud the changes designed to increase flexibility. I do not want the unions to come in and re-erect barriers.

But there is another way of assessing the situation. Fewer management grades mean fewer promotion opportunities. The speed at which work has to be completed has steadily increased. And half the people questioned in the Rowntree survey said that current staffing levels in their organisations were inadequate. This last observation does capture a new feature of work. Of the five organisations I know well, I would say that two are short-staffed as a matter of policy and a third may soon tread the same path.

What the authors of the Rowntree report have spotted is a new asymmetry in the relationship between employers and employees. Workers are asked for an unconditional commitment to flexible working practices, and an unconditional acceptance that pay rises must be linked to performance alone.

Employers' commitment to job security, on the other hand, the other side of the bargain, is conditional. "Sure, jobs are safe - unless, as you will no doubt understand, the economy deteriorates, or our shareholders insist upon a restructuring, or we are involved in a takeover. In those circumstances you would have to accept that we cannot maintain employment," they would say. You could put the matter even more harshly. Redundancy is no longer a last resort, something that happens only in the most calamitous of circumstances; rather, it has become an everyday management tool.

How different from the situation that confronted Margaret Thatcher when she formed her first government 20 years ago. Then, the circumstances were the reverse. Trade unions enforced their demands with strikes and mass picketing of employers' premises. This would cost employees a few days' pay, or a week or two's at most. Companies, on the other hand, deprived of the ability to do any business, would quickly run out of cash unless they yielded to the unions' demands. That, too, was an asymmetrical relationship.

The manner in which employees cope with the working conditions of the late Nineties are very different. A recent IPD Survey report showed that one in 10 employees works more than 48 hours per week. They are not paid overtime. They put in long hours every day of the week. They work on public holidays. They work when they are feeling sick. Quite a lot of them say that they have so much work to do that they do not have time to fetch a drink or a sandwich. Nor do they resent their situation; they thrive under pressure. They enjoy work, and find it makes home life even more enjoyable.

While not being quite so dedicated to work, many others are robust, and understand that they must look after themselves. You make your own pension arrangements, take full advantage of information technology, hone up your skills, read the job advertisements. But, in many other cases, job insecurity and pressure of work lead to stress and ill-health.

It can also strain family relationships. In this way, cost-cutting can begin to have a perverse result as the remaining employees, even with the best will in the world, are unable to cope with the demands placed upon them. Quality and sales revenue spiral downwards. This, too, I have seen.

However individuals react, the key fact is that employees' trust in management to look after their best interests, while still high, is declining. The latest figures collected by Rowntree show that 55 per cent of employees said that they trusted managers, but 44 per cent held the view that management could be trusted "only a little" or "not at all".

From this it follows that employees will become steadily more interested in the possibilities of collective action to protect their interests. After a long decline, about 27 per cent of working people, including the self-employed, are currently members of unions or associations. I expect this proportion to rise again. We have reached a turning-point.

`Job insecurity and work intensification', is published by Joseph Rowntree Foundation. `Living to work?' is published by the Institute of Personnel and Development