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Innovation in Union-Management relationships: can there be a mutually beneficial framework for engag

Unions should be prepared to actively work with employers who are prepared to navigate “a higher road” when it comes to developing new IR relationships that could secure dividends for both parties, writes Liam Doherty*. He suggests that trade unions should provide tangible examples of a “discrete group of employers” who recognise unions and “who are at the very least not disadvantaged over those who don’t”.

We recently held a launch event for a new initiative and workplace innovation network by STRATIS across Ireland as a partner of Fresh Thinking Labs to encourage employers to experiment, to network, to share ideas and learning. (

One area that has received little attention for some time is the potential to innovate in the IR/ER arena and to forge a new set of relationships between individual employers and trade unions. I have been involved in some examples where “a better way” has been worked out by enlightened and progressive managers and trade union officials.

“Can unions show that unionised employers enjoy an ‘advantage’ over non-unionised firms?”

Unfortunately, these can often be born out of a crisis and once the pressure has dissipated people can default to a more traditional approach to IR. Nevertheless, it is possible to craft a new set of relationships that are built on a solid set of principles that some employers and trade unions could agree on.

When writing this paper, I was reminded of a comment made in 2016 by Jack O’Connor, SIPTU general president when he said that trade unions “should be able to demonstrate that employers who recognise trade unions also enjoy an advantage over those who don’t.”

But what could that ‘advantage’ look like? There may be a potential advantage in the form of reduced employee turnover levels or a reduced incidence of absence. It is also possible to envisage a higher potential speed of response to change or some other productivity based advantage. Furthermore, it could allow the employer to invest less resources in IR/ER, or in supervision and front-line management as people could be largely self-managing.

However, from an employers’ perspective it is very difficult to see exactly how trade unions could tangibly demonstrate that unionised employers can enjoy an ‘advantage’ over non-union employers. Trade unions may first need to focus on offsetting any perceived disadvantage and concerns around inflexibility, the pace of change and the risk to continuity of production or service delivery are key requirements in this equation.

It is reasonable to question whether a trade union needs to reserve the right to take industrial action in all circumstances in a modern democracy? One can accept that in certain employments it may be necessary to counterbalance or moderate the behaviour of a potential rogue employer. Could a trade union use assurances of full cooperation with change, promoting maximum productivity and continuity to provide a basis for securing long term improvements in terms and conditions and job security?

It should be possible, within the right context, to envision a new relationship between an individual employer and a trade union where the threat of industrial action is removed by agreement. It is also possible that an employer might be prepared to pay a premium for this in conjunction with other commitments.


For the purposes of debate let us consider the following list as a possible basis for an engagement between a company and a union to develop a "Framework for a Mutually Beneficial Working Relationship”:

In the context of appropriate external oversight by an agreed independent adjudicator or tribunal the parties might seek to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship with some or all of the following elements:

  • Multi-Annual Agreements on Pay / Terms and Conditions to ensure they are affordable and aligned with relevant market & IR norms.

  • Appropriate transparency on the organisation’s financial situation including a facility for independent external assessment (subject to normal assurances of confidentiality).

  • Periodic benchmarking of terms and conditions to ensure that they remain in line with an appropriate basket of comparators. This would require agreement on the composition of the basket for comparison purposes.

  • Full co-operation with the most productive and effective ways of working, with the only barrier being the competence of staff to safely carry out the work and subject to independent review / adjudication if required.

  • Full co-operation with change subject to an appropriate window of consultation. However, staff would not be disadvantaged by virtue of this cooperation and any assessment of future pay progression would take this fully into account. So it would not be “working under protest “but cooperation in the safe knowledge that it would be fully captured and accounted for in subsequent discussions.

  • Agreement on a fair and effective mechanism for managers to challenge underperformance, poor attendance records, unacceptable timekeeping etc subject to referral of any disciplinary decision to an agreed Independent 3rd party. The employer would also need to be able to effect dismissals for cumulative misconduct /gross misconduct subject to a referral of any final decision to an agreed Independent 3rd party (if an ex-employee chooses this route)

  • Agreement on levels of internal representation and facilities/training for employee representatives to carry out their role.

  • Monthly / quarterly reviews via a joint ‘competitiveness forum’ (or similar) and updates with external union official involved at appropriate intervals.

  • Training for managers and union reps in jointly working the new arrangements.

  • Security of employment and a commitment to no compulsory redundancies over the reference period, subject to a force majeure clause. Fair selection criteria and appropriate severance / supports would be available if a VR arises.

  • Provision for adjudication on all individual and collective IR issues that may arise within the reference period (Employees would still retain the right to use the WRC/LC processes for rights cases but not for both rights and IR issues).


To service and support such an arrangement there may be resources and expertise required over and above that which a trade union could reasonably be expected to cover and consequently a Workplace Innovation Fund could be made available by DBEI to cover additional resourcing costs again subject to external oversight. This would also permit a better depth and range of resourcing of trade union expertise that exists in such bodies as SIPTU’s IDEAS Institute or ETOS, which is supported by TEEU.

It is important to acknowledge that trade unions have increasingly played a positive role in supporting initiatives under the broad banner of workplace innovation. It is equally true, that in some cases, unions have been too slow to come on board.

Through valuable initiatives such as the work of the Ideas Institute within SIPTU, ETOS within the TEEU and now with the potential of learning networks on workplace innovation such as Stratis/Fresh Thinking Labs, real progress can be achieved. This is not about compromising on basic trade union principles but rather it is about creating better workplaces for everyone and maintaining employment standards.

In moving this forward at the level of the individual organisation it should be possible to establish a joint management union working group comprised of key leaders and influencers to undertake an accurate current state analysis and figure out what a vision for the future might look like. This can then lead to the development of a roadmap with appropriate short and long-term goals with staff and management involved via implementation teams. This could still take a 5-7 year period to become fully embedded.


In conclusion, unions should be prepared to actively work with employers who are prepared to navigate a higher road that could in turn lead to a re-shaping of at least a segment of our IR system. Companies need to become agile and adaptive, and most importantly the natural resistance to change is a lethal trap that has to be overcome. If there is a willingness to experiment and innovate in this area it might be possible for trade unions to provide tangible examples of a discrete group of employers who recognise trade unions and who are at the very least not disadvantaged over those who don’t.

Dr Liam Doherty is a Director and Senior Partner of Stratis Consulting and focuses primarily on providing high level IR advice and support for large scale restructuring and change management assignments. He also specialises in designing and providing independent problem solving and dispute resolution services.

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