The state of the unions


Clashes between unions and employers were headline news in the 1970s and '80s, even in the book business, but these days "partnership" appears to be the guiding principle. Clare Baker investigates</p><p>

For those who remember the turbulent '80s - battles at Butterworths and pickets at Pergamon - trade unions at the beginning of the new millennium seem strangely quiet. Are they still there? Were they legislated out of existence by Margaret Thatcher's free market enthusiasm? A brief survey of trade union activity in the book business suggests that the unions, in publishing at least, have reinvented themselves for the 21st century as partners in business.</p><p>

Much of the old antagonism between union and management has disappeared. Words like "intransigence" and "demands" have been replaced around the negotiating tables by "shared responsibility" and "social partnership". Susan Taylor, human resources director at Penguin UK, has noticed that "unions and companies have found a new relationship . . . Unions are seeking to understand business drivers." </p><p>

From an employer's perspective, Ms Taylor finds that Penguin can rely on the expertise of the unions to help its members understand changes affecting their employment. Reflecting the unions' approach to this new partnership, Barbara Gail Prentiss, MSF (Manufacturing Science Finance) union representative at Oxford University Press, points out: "The employee is the company's biggest asset. And it always pays to look after your assets."</p><p>

To understand how and why this more moderate relationship has come about it is useful to look outside our own industry to changes that have taken place in the wider political landscape over the past few years.</p><p>

A brief history</p><p>

During the 1970s and 1980s there was an increasingly widespread, mostly negative, perception of trade union activity. The writings of the right-wing free market thinkers Hayek and Nozick were used by the Conservative government to develop a philosophy of individual freedom, culminating in Mrs Thatcher's remark, "There is no such thing as society". Trade unions were perceived as interfering with the individual's "right to choose", and laws were enacted that reduced the ability of the unions to negotiate centrally. The emphasis during the 1980s was on individual responsibility, with personal contracts and individual negotiation. As a result, there was a steep decline in union membership, particularly in the media unions.</p><p>

This decline now appears to be in reverse. The perception of unions is changing; they are now seen by employers as being an effective channel of communicating employees' concerns. Moreover, the new generation of union officials and company managers, unlike those of 20 or 30 years ago, come from similar educational backgrounds.</p><p>

Paul Hardy, of the national executive committee of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists), witnessed the decline in the influence of the media unions in general and the NUJ in particular during the 1980s and 1990s. But he feels that there is now a "union renaissance across the media, thanks in part to the change of government in 1997 and to recent changes in the law". </p><p>

The legal position</p><p>

Under the Conservative government, recognition of a union in the workplace was at the discretion of the employer. Even if all employees had joined a union and wanted to negotiate terms and conditions jointly, the employer could refuse.</p><p>

After the curtailment of union activities in the 1980s and early '90s, the media unions - the NUJ, Equity, SOGAT (Society of Graphical and Allied Trades), NGA (National Graphical Association, now GPMU, Graphic Print and Media Union), ACTT (Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians) and BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) - mounted a campaign to demand legal rights to union recognition.</p><p>

By the time the Labour government was elected in May 1997, the unions were gearing up for changes in legislation. When the White Paper, Fairness at Work, came out, it was hailed as proposing "the greatest single improvement in employment rights for 25 years" (Lawfords Solicitors, 1998).</p><p>

The Employment Relations Act that resulted from these proposals forced employers to recognise a union when a majority of the relevant workforce had voted for it. It also created a legal right for employees to be accompanied by a fellow employee or a trade union representative during a grievance or disciplinary procedure, and introduced a variety of "family-friendly policies", including enhanced maternity and parental leave rights.</p><p>

How unions work</p><p>

The main unions in the book publishing industry are the NUJ, MSF and GPMU. Each recruits in different areas of the business, although there are crossovers, and if necessary they will work jointly to negotiate with employers.</p><p>

Anyone has the legal right to join a union as an individual member and to get union help with their own problems; a minimum of three members can form a branch or chapel at work and can ask the union for help with issues such as health and safety, unfair treatment or redundancy. For a company to "recognise" the union officially as the negotiating body for the pay, hours and holidays of the "bargaining unit" (i.e. employees at one company or at a particular site), over 50% of that unit has to be a member of the union. Recognised trade unions have the right to be consulted on redundancies and business transfers, and are usually involved in employee training and health and safety issues.</p><p>

John Foster, general secretary of the NUJ, emphasises that, as a membership-driven organisation, the union can take up any issues its members want raised. The NUJ's aims are not party political - there is no political affiliation or levy (money given directly to a political party) - although it is happy to campaign on broad issues that affect members in the UK or internationally. </p><p>

The NUJ can also offer members targeted services, including training courses on all aspects of writing and editing, as well as campaign on copyright protection and freelance rates. Mr Foster points out that the NUJ, as a union that represents exclusively people who write and edit for a living, has huge experience of book publishing through its Book Branch. This understanding of the market enables it to negotiate with employers from a position of knowledge, which is appreciated by the personnel directors of the companies with which it deals. </p><p>

However, because the NUJ restricts its recruitment to editorial and copywriting staff, it cannot offer membership to sales, production or administrative staff. It therefore must organise with other unions in order to cover an entire workforce.</p><p>

At Penguin the NUJ has worked with MSF and the GPMU for nearly 30 years to negotiate some of the best terms and conditions in publishing. Penguin's parent, Pearson, was recently voted 18th in a survey by the Sunday Times that revealed the 50 Best Companies To Work For, with Penguin's maternity cover singled out for particular praise. </p><p>

After Pearson acquired Dorling Kindersley and merged it with Penguin, a ballot was held to find out whether staff at both companies wished the NUJ and MSF to be the recognised unions for them all (GPMU represents distribution staff and was not affected by the merger). More than 80% of all employees in both companies voted in favour.</p><p>

This delighted both John Foster and Nanette Cormack, MSF regional co-ordinator for London, who said the ballot had increased both awareness of the unions' operations and their membership numbers. Mr Foster notes that NUJ membership at DK has increased from 12 to 70 since the ballot. The original company had been anti-union, and although a staff council had existed, it had no legal right to negotiate on behalf of employees.</p><p>

Susan Taylor points out that the unions' mandate from both companies has been a tremendous help in the subsequent negotiations over the future of the merged company: "DK employees feel they have a stake." All employees were covered by union agreements when changes (including redundancies) were implemented, and they have been given a package consisting of the best of each companies' benefits. </p><p>

A different arrangement was necessary when Taylor&amp;Francis swallowed the much larger Routledge. Simon Franklin, personnel director of the new company, explains that Taylor&amp;Francis had not been unionised, though Routledge was and had been for many years. The newly formed Taylor&amp;Francis Books adopted the Routledge/NUJ house agreement, including a "single table" agreement whereby the NUJ negotiates on behalf of members of the GPMU (which represents sales and maintenance staff). </p><p>

Terms and conditions at Routledge were the result of many years of negotiation and were much better than those at Taylor&amp;Francis. The adoption of the Routledge/NUJ agreement has resulted in improved terms and conditions for the whole company. Simon Franklin stresses that "it is not just unions that push up pay - market forces mean a company cannot afford to fall behind or it will lose key workers". However, as the unions point out, someone has to set the standard for pay and benefits, and this is the job the unions have taken upon themselves. </p><p>

These joint arrangements are unnecessary at companies where a single union agreement can cover everyone. At the publishing divisions of Cambridge and Oxford University Presses, MSF is the sole recognised negotiating body. This is possible because MSF is a general union and anyone can join - even editors who would also be eligible for NUJ membership. Although MSF has less specialised knowledge of the book trade, it is a huge union, representing over half a million mainly skilled and professional people, from scientists to football managers.</p><p>

CUP has recognised the union since 1985; MSF membership accounts for about 50% of both full and part-time staff. The MSF committee meets regularly with senior management to agree pay deals lasting up to three years, which help both the Press and staff to plan ahead. As a substantial employer in the area, CUP's arrangements help to set standards. The MSF committee feels that "the Press offers a very generous flexitime scheme and a high level of job security, but is not perhaps fully competitive in rates of pay" - something the committee is working hard to redress.</p><p>

But unions do not confine themselves only to matters of pay; as membership organisations they address any issues that their members raise. </p><p>

Business partnership</p><p>

At OUP, MSF campaigns on ways to motivate staff as well as on remuneration. Union representative Barbara Gail Prentiss explains how, through consultations with senior management and through its regular newsletter, the union is looking at "a more motivational-based management style". She is passionate about the idea of social partnership, and determined to make the Press "the best place to work, so we can attract and keep the
best . . . increase productivity through loyalty and admiration". The MSF committee is already talking to management on "the best way to become number one in next year's Sunday Times 50 Best Companies To Work For".</p><p>

At Penguin, NUJ rep Richard Duguid feels that unions could contribute ideas on how to motivate staff since "management ideas about motivation often come from an academic, psychological base which is not always realistic".</p><p>

This positive use of the union as a two-way information channel was mentioned by many of those interviewed for this article, including James Folam, NUJ rep at Taylor&amp;Francis Books. He is pleased that "we can provide a channel for management and staff, to communicate, and the company recognises that". He also sees involvement in the union as "one of the few ways people can influence their place of work". By discovering and dealing with members' problems as they arise, "unions help prevent big problems". </p><p>


Those working at the coalface in the book trade - selling the product to the end consumer - might look at this picture somewhat enviously. The retail book trade has little organised union activity, and salaries and other benefits lag far behind those in publishing. The former Dillons (now Waterstone's) in Gower Street has long been the only bookshop in the group which has a recognition agreement with the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).</p><p>

David Cann, the shop's union representative, cannot understand the apathy of staff in other stores in the group: the Gower Street branch has, he says, been able to negotiate significant improvements in pay, holiday and bonuses for both full and part-time workers at the central London store. About 75% of all staff there are members, and that includes 50% of the managers - most of whom have risen through the ranks.</p><p>

This also means that recruitment and retention of staff is much more efficient at Gower Street than at other Waterstone's stores. Estimates of staff turnover at Waterstone's branches elsewhere in London are rumoured to be approaching 80%. Mr Cann wants to help "engender a training culture that encourages new entrants to see bookselling as a career . . . [the union wants] to be part of the solution not part of the problem".</p><p>

At the Retail Book, Stationery and Allied Trades Employees' Association (RBA), whose main function since it was established in 1919 has been to act as W H Smith's staff negotiating body, national officer Paul Lee spends most of his time advising and, when necessary, representing individuals in disciplinary and grievance cases. The RBA has members in several of the bookselling chains but only one recognition agreement, with W H Smith (where 90% of the staff are members).</p><p>

The RBA has informal recognition at Waterstone's and regular meetings, but its membership there is predominantly managerial. Mr Lee admits to not having the time to get out and recruit, and likens the situation to painting the Forth Road Bridge - employees leave almost as soon as they have joined the Association.</p><p>

Accessing potential members is difficult in the retail trade. This is particularly the case where there is shift working, because fewer staff are present at any one time. John Foster of the NUJ also cites "the logistics of talking to people as the biggest obstacle to union recruitment".
All the union reps interviewed spoke of the large number of small issues with which they deal on a day-to-day basis: individual problems; health and safety issues, such as chairs and desks of the right design; misunderstandings that can be sorted before they ever reach formal hearings or worse; and industrial tribunals.</p><p>

Most people tend to join unions to feel that they have someone on their side should things go wrong (the "insurance option"), but those employees who get involved with the positive aspects of negotiating terms and conditions for their colleagues and themselves learn a vast amount about people management and about business practices. </p><p>

Doug Williamson, MSF union representative at Macmillan Education Publishers, cites the training and personal development courses available through the union as a reason why young people in particular are joining. MSF has a college, Whitehall College in Bishop's Stortford, which offers a range of accredited courses affiliated to Leeds University. </p><p>

New dawn?</p><p>

In many of the largest publishing houses there appears to be a new dawn of mutual co-operation and respect between the trade unions and those who manage personnel issues. However, this does not always extend across the entire senior management, and there are some companies that are reluctant to do more than comply with the minimum legal requirements unless forced to do so.</p><p>

There are significant gains for both managements and unions that embrace the new culture of "shared responsibility". These gains are about more than attaining a place in the Sunday Times 50 Best Companies list; they lay the foundation for satisfied employees in profitable companies.
In its survey, the Sunday Times also reported: "The balance of power has shifted: well-qualified employees can be choosy and employers have to try harder to attract them." With unemployment at its lowest level since 1975, employers cannot afford to lose skilled staff. </p><p>

Nobody in the industry can afford for the dissatisfied 62% of book trade employees - according to a recent poll in - to continue feeling undervalued in their jobs. If the new spirit of co-operation between unions and employers can make employees feel valued, everyone will benefit. </p><p>

Clare Baker is a freelance writer.</p>