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What do employers and employees gain when they participate in mechanisms of collective voice? This question matters because work is changing and there are likely to be serious social and economic problems if those changes are decided with only employers’ interests at heart.

What is collective voice at work?

In short, collective voice refers to mechanisms that allow workers to contribute collectively to decisions that affect their working lives. The collective focus is important. Any worker with a sensible manager can express their views as an individual. Collective voice requires workers and organisations to have structures that facilitate expression of a broader perspective and allow insight into the extent to which workers as a group agree or disagree with each other about a particular issue.

That is a complex process and requires effort to facilitate soliciting different views, deciding which issues are most important, coalescing around a perspective, and then putting forward that view to managers. Trade unions are often, but not always, central to those processes.

Recently, I sat on the Commission for Collective Voice at Work run by the thinktank Unions21, where we reviewed a wide range of evidence from the UK and beyond that organisations that have structures of collective voice have a range of better outcomes in terms of job quality and staff satisfaction, so the benefits to workers are clear.

But what about managers? While it can be frustrating for some managers to be told that there are problems with a particular decision, it shows them a wider picture of what is going on in the organisation. Workers’ perspectives can help show why a decision made in the boardroom or a manager’s office may not be implemented quite as anticipated, which, in turn, can improve decision making. Collective worker voice also helps ensure that there has been a process of gaining consent and co-operation with decisions which helps ensure decisions are implemented effectively.  

Collective voice and unionisation

There are some organisations that have experimented with non-union forms of voice such as staff forums and works councils. However, the evidence internationally is clear that those forums are usually seen as most effective – by both workers and managers – when they work with and alongside union representation, rather than as a substitute.

Academic evidence shows is that what matters is that unions are independent of employers and build their capacity as strategic actors. There are several effects going on there. First, it seems to give workers confidence that their representatives have their best interests at heart. Even when workers are not active in their union, or maybe not even a member, the fact that the union is there representing them in voice structures is important.

Second, when unions are involved, staff forums tend to talk about more substantive issues; rather than car parking permits (an important, but usually a not strategic issue) discussions tend to focus on more strategic issues such as pay and equality.

Third, unions can usually provide training and support for worker representatives, meaning they will tend to be better at their roles. In short, whether unions are involved in facilitating collective worker voice through a staff forum or through wider collective bargaining, there can be real benefits for all parties.

The policy implications of collective voice

Despite these known benefits, many politicians, policy makers and employers are sceptical about supporting collective voice at work. Sometimes that is overt resistance, but often it is because most of us now work in the absence of these structures, so we simply aren’t used to deciding issues at work collectively any more. Changing that will take time and focus from various parties.

Government is clearly important because they are the ones that can ‘set the rules of the game’. What governments and policy makers expect from employers changes, and there is certainly scope to lead the way in, for example, including consideration of collective worker voice in the industrial strategy. But what is really central is providing forums for employers and worker representatives to sit together to decide what is right for them in their setting; maybe a sector, a region or a specific organisation.

Time and time again, we hear national and international evidence about how collective voice really works when it is tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of workers and managers. So providing space for them to discuss what is important to them is probably the most important effective focus for policy makers.

Collective worker voice is a way to negotiate change in the world of work so that wider interests are taken into consideration, but there are currently few mechanisms to do that. Rebuilding collective voice takes time and energy, but is not impossible and there are good examples from around the world that can guide and inform that future.

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