Time for the user-friendly union: As the TUC congress opens, Alan Cave argues that unions must radically reinvent themselves

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WHAT does the future hold for trade unions? Should we pay more attention to the loss of 4 million members and the growing trend towards union derecognition, or to the high standing of unions in opinion polls as 'good things' and talk of union 'resurgence'? If trade unions did not exist, would anyone bother to invent them? And if they did, would the result resemble the organisations we have today?

The case to answer for those who see a future for trade unionism is a fairly robust one. Employers, runs the argument, no longer want to buy their labour wholesale through collective agreements, nor are they prepared to enter into elaborate rules and regulations governing the deployment of their staff with trade union officials. Competitive edge comes from smart workers performing flexibly in market conditions that are changing far too rapidly to be codified and jointly regulated. The 'Human Resource Management' practised by employers in these new conditions is designed to build a web of individual relationships with this flexible workforce, aligned with the needs of the business, buying employees' commitment in return for investment in the development of their skills.

No wonder then, the argument continues, that workers in the new labour markets have been deserting unions in droves. What matters to them is not worker solidarity but their own advancement, the success of their employer and their ambitions for their own family. Unions are something which they have left behind and which seem to have little to offer.

The strength of this argument lies in the fact that real life backs it up. Its limitations lie in the plentiful cases of employer behaviour which is at odds with this progressive model. For every empowering, supportive manager there are probably two or three 'bosses from hell', who see their staff not as their 'greatest asset' but as a cost to be cut back, controlled and generally given short shrift.

The first reason for unions, then, is the oldest one: as a pluralistic check to the abuse of managerial power. As that power has been given ever greater scope over the past 15 years, so the evidence has mounted that working life in the non-union sector is, on average, marked by a higher incidence of unfair dismissal, a higher rate of accidents, ill health and discrimination.

The second important reason also springs from changing working conditions. The very ingredients of competitive advantage also offer employers and workers much more potential power over one another. Flatter organisation structures redraw the rules of engagement between manager and managed. The key ingredient has to be trust. To reap the real benefits of new techniques and opportunities, managers need to persuade their staff to let go of old ways and give the new ones a chance. What, however, will make employees trust their managers not to abuse the greater power they now enjoy? Some - by no means all - companies at the sharp end of change have decided that union involvement is a necessary part of the answer. It is akin to a confidence building measure, a sign of a readiness to listen and to take staff concerns seriously. Paradoxically, by respecting the workforce's right to say 'no' they have found that staff are more likely to say 'yes'.

So there is a case for trade unions. But is it for the sort of unions we have at the moment? The answer is no. What would we think of a commercial organisation that had introduced no significant new product when demand for its established product had halved, and that had failed to evolve any significant new organisational response to a transformed marketplace?

Too many unions continue to behave as if the collapse in demand for the collective bargaining which they have come to see as their raison d'etre is but a temporary aberration. Their initiatives aimed at recruiting and servicing workers in the new labour markets are pursued energetically by the individuals concerned, but remain at the fringes of the 'real' business of the union. The unions' leadership remains largely a conservative, insiders' club representing the steadily declining union heartland, and the only strategy on show is that of defensive merger to get a bigger slice of the declining market. All in all, a culture of managed decline.

Yet employers and employees alike are increasingly clear about what they want from unions. Employers want a clear focus on their particular circumstances and to deal directly with their employees and their local union representatives on those issues.

Employees want the collective support that unions can - if they are allowed - offer, but they also want support in dealing with the more personal issues that they now face - employment contracts, performance appraisal, health and safety, pensions and so on.

The 'reinvented' union would focus clearly on one or more of these sorts of strategies, all of which rest on the essential competence of unions - representation and problem solving:

An employment advice service giving easy access to the best possible advice to those struggling in deregulated labour markets.

A support service for 'mobile career workers', taking the hassle out of all the pension, taxation, contract and training tangles they face.

A partner in change - offering firms, in effect, advice drawn systematically on the practical experience of union members with new techniques and technologies.

A flexible friend, helping firms to face the headache of resourcing the more complex, flexible patterns of employment, and to raise the quality of labour they employ.

Many unions will say they are doing some of these things. They will point with justification to the excellent work of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation in winning a landmark case for RSI sufferers, to the GMB's championing of pensioners' rights, to the Amalgamated Engineering and Electricians' Union's work in building modern skills for its members.

The trouble is that it is just not enough. More specifically, it is not systematic enough. Rover, British Airways, General Electric, Xerox, the corporations that came through crises of similar magnitude to those facing the unions, didn't survive by tinkering. They 'reinvented' themselves with a seriousness that the unions have yet to display - reshaping all of their core processes and their products and services, redirecting internal resources on a huge scale and radically overhauling their organisational structures and cultures. The challenge facing the unions is to reinvent themselves on the same scale. We will all be worse off if it is not met.

The writer is a director of Kinsley Lord Management Consultants and author of 'Managing Change in the Workplace', published by Kogan Page at pounds 13.

(Photograph omitted)