Any negotiation with a trade union should aim to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome. But when making changes to employees’ terms and conditions, there can be a lot at stake for those affected.
Is there a need for new or revised terms and conditions?
Before commencing negotiations with the trade union, the management team should ensure that there is a good business or operational reason for any proposed change. A proposed change may be due to a law change, a change in technology or a major new investment or strategic move. It is not enough to say “That’s the way it is done at other companies” as a reason. Any change may have implications for statutory employee rights, such as the right to annual leave, the right to be paid on time, or information and consultation rights. Any changes may need to be explained and justified to employees or a union representative.
Once it has been established that there is a valid business case, management needs to have an appropriate methodology or process for analysing the potential impacts of change. This should identify risks and minimise them. Any changes need to be laid out in a timeline with a view to involving the Minimum Necessary Persons – and then they need to be adopted.
The importance of this is that the change is not perceived as something done to a few individual employees or their representatives. It is important for employees to understand that changes are required because they benefit the employees as a whole – the “we” – not just one or two individuals.
Is there a good relationship with the trade union?
Agreeing a process with employees, and being seen to follow it, helps strengthen the relationship with employees and their representatives. Once employees understand that the process is fair and reasonable, they are likely to be more relaxed, and to listen to other aspects of management’s proposals. It is important to avoid bullying or unduly influencing employees, and trade union representatives can also use the proposed process to feel confident that staff are not being pressured.
Good relations, however, do not necessarily mean that employees or their representatives will be receptive to management’s proposals, because the process with employees must be fair, reasonable and non-adversarial.
Is the change realistic and enforceable?
The management team must understand whether the proposed change is enforceable. All employees should be made aware of the new terms and conditions so that there is no doubt in employees minds that they are being and will remain part of the workforce. This can be difficult in a period of change and uncertainty, where some employees may be tempted to leave before the change takes effect. However, they should never be given an option that is no longer valid by the time the change actually takes effect.
If this is the case, the management team must tell those employees that they will work under the old terms and conditions. This forces the management team to ensure that the current terms and conditions are fit for purpose or a new version is ready before the changes take place.
Are the terms and conditions acceptable to all employees?
Unless there are good reasons not to do so, it will be important to agree a process for introducing the revised terms and conditions to all of the employees affected by them. The process should ensure that all those affected are told of the changes and their effects in a way that is easy to understand, and that they are able to have questions answered in a clear manner.
The process should also be timely, giving advance notice of the changes and a regular review of how well they are working. If disagreements arise, it should be easy to revisit the process, and to negotiate any variations necessary to keep the agreed terms up to date.
Planning for negotiations with a trade union
It is usually quite straightforward to agree a process for dealing with changes to staff terms and conditions that genuinely benefit employees and provide them with opportunities for improved working conditions and pay. The difficulty arises when the trade union or Working Group members have a very different view of what is acceptable behaviour for an employer and a trade union.
Employers must ensure that they are able to continue to trade, and to provide goods and services, while dealing with any disruption created by trade union disputes. However, this should not mean that the overall benefit to the employees’ working conditions should be ignored.
A typical negotiation over plans could be as follows:
Understand the business case for making any change to the terms and conditions of employment. Taking time to do this will make it clear whether or not the changes are needed. Do things slowly, and plan for the future.
Make clear to the trade union, employees and the “simply-compelled ” that the changes are necessary. The trade union might organise a protest strike, but if it has been made clear that there is a sound business reason for the changes, the protest may be less disruptive. Talk to as many members of the Group as possible, so that they can explain the future changes to their colleagues to avoid increased levels of disruption and delay.
Collect views from employees on the impact of the change. This is best done after representatives have had a chance to discuss the impact of a change with a few colleagues.
Follow this up with a meeting involving the trade union, a representative working group, those making any changes, and “simply compelled” people. The meeting should be well documented, and should be run under agreed rules of conduct and preparation.
Decide whether any changes need to be made before the new terms are put in place. Allow time for this to take place, given the right to a minimum amount of notice, and put the changes in place before any new term is implemented.
Agree a process for communicating the changes to all employees. Allow time for this to happen.
Agree the stages and timetable for implementing the changes. This should allow sufficient time for any changes and the new terms and conditions to be administered and accepted.
The Time for Action is now
The Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court should be able to help you turn disputes you have with trade union members or representatives around. Flexibility is the key to keeping the peace and to reaching a suitable agreement for both management and employees.
This process may seem slow if a business is facing problems over how to deal with high absenteeism or trade union action, but it does enable both sides to reach an informed and necessary decision which is acceptable to all parties.
Since the dispute with the Workplace Relations Commission, I have received call after call from companies and organisations who are hiring new staff and struggling to calculate salaries etc for them. Employers who may be dealing with a dispute with a Union and are wondering what to do, may find this article helpful.
For others, this may be a valuable list of steps to be taken to ensure that they follow a process which is explained and understood by all parties.
As someone who is ‘simply compelled’, I can testify to the fact that there is only one acceptable outcome of any dispute – and that is a fair one.