The TUC is getting worked up about the increased use of anti-Union consultants by firms in the UK. This report, by the LSE’s John Logan, describes how these organisations operate and some of their recent campaigns against union organisation.
While some of the union-busting campaigns in the USA may have included the intimidation of employees and the dismissal of union activists, the examples from this country read more like PR battles. Where unions have lost, it is because their spin-doctors have not been as clever as those used by the other side.
Anti-union consultants have much less room to manoeuvre under UK law. Unfair dismissal regulation protects union activists regardless of their length of service. Employers are also obliged to recognise unions where there is enough support for them within a workplace. Data protection laws prevent companies from handing over employee details to anti-union consultants for mass mailings. The sort of aggressive tactics and campaigns of intimidation run by anti-union consultants in the USA would soon fall foul of the law in this country.
I am also dubious about the costs and benefits of such campaigns. I don’t know how much firms like the Burke Group charge but I imagine they would be very expensive. Is it really worth that much money and aggravation to keep unions out of a company? Might the aggressive tactics just leave you with an un-unionised but resentful workforce?
The anti-union campaign at Kettle Chips resulted in a consumer backlash and another expensive PR campaign by the company, again led by a consultancy firm, to repair its reputation. Was it worth all that money and effort just to stop people joining a union?
I am sceptical about the benefits of anti-union campaigns. They are expensive, they divert effort and focus away from a company’s core business and I doubt whether the cost justifies the saving of time and money gained from having a non-union workforce.
The reason why they are popular with some managers may, I suspect, have little to do with a hard-nosed financial calculation. This comment from a director at a Havant based company is illuminating:
Union free activities are high adrenal and time consuming events.
In other words, there’s a buzz about them. Managers get a kick from the battle – especially if they win. Anti-union campaigns provide an exciting diversion from the hum-drum activities of running a company. Whether or not they actually save the company money is, I suspect, a secondary consideration.
The TUC report concedes that union busting campaigns are still relatively uncommon in the UK. I’m not surprised. Perhaps, like me, most managers are sceptical about the benefits. This is one US import that I can’t see catching on over here.