21st‐century models of employee representation: structures, processes and outcomes

Date01 July 2007
AuthorAndy Charlwood,Mike Terry
Published date01 July 2007
21st-century models of employee
representation: structures, processes
and outcomes
Andy Charlwood and Mike Terry
The 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey allows further exploration of the
fate or workplace-based forms of employee representation charted by earlier surveys.
We describe the occurrence and diversity of representational forms, union, non-union
and ‘hybrid’, and the structural characteristics of workplaces where they are found.
We go on to analyse a number of structural and processual differences and differences
in outcomes. In particular, we try to estimate the effects of different forms for
outcomes such as wage dispersion, procedural ‘fairness’ and productivity. The data
show that ‘hybrid’ systems of union and non-union representation are associated with
the best outcomes, therefore, notwithstanding the continuing decline in the diffusion
of the ‘traditional’ union-based model of workplace representation, union presence is
still a prerequisite for effective representation, while ‘pure’ non-union forms serve
neither employee nor employer interests.
For over 40 years, the policy and theory of employee representation has been pro-
foundly influenced by a particular idealised model of representation. Essentially,
this was identified as a collective of union-based shop stewards, close to the mem-
bership and democratically accountable to them; working within but often indepen-
dent from, wider union structures and engaged in continuous negotiations with
local management in collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employ-
ment, wages in particular. The outcome, celebrated as the central achievement of
British trade unions, was characterised as joint regulation of a wide range of terms
and conditions of employment. Related outcomes were held to include both higher
wages and better working conditions than non-union employees, and also fairer
employment conditions (flatter wage structures, although too often issues of gender
and race equality were ignored) and procedural fairness in matters such as discipline
Andy Charlwood is Associate Professor of Industrial Relations, Warwick Business School; Mike Terry
is Deputy Dean of Warwick Business School and Professor of Industrial Relations and Organisational
Behaviour. Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Andy Charlwood, Warwick Business School,
University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK; e-mail: andy.charlwood@wbs.ac.uk
Industrial Relations Journal 38:4, 320–337
ISSN 0019-8692
© 2007 The Author(s)
Journal compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Rd, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and Main St., Malden,
MA 02148, USA.
and grievance handling. Joint regulation was the product of negotiation between
powerful parties, each with its own battery of sanctions to be called upon when
needed; a form of industrial ‘power-sharing’ (to paraphrase Flanders and the
Donovan Commission). These shop stewards were traditionally jealous of their
right to represent employees, refusing, in rhetoric if not always in practice, to
countenance non-union forms of representation (see e.g. Coates and Toopham,
1988: 161).
This analysis, probably only applicable to a small number of workplaces even at
the height of shopfloor trade union power, has nevertheless exerted a powerful
influence as a ‘benchmark’ against which shopfloor trade unionism is, often impli-
citly, judged. From such a perspective, the relentless decline of workplace represen-
tative structures charted in successive Workplace Industrial Relations Survey
(WIRS) and Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) since the mid-
1980s has been interpreted as evidence of possibly irreversible weakness as ever
more workplace union bodies failed to come anywhere close to this ideal. More
than this, it has been taken as evidence of the fracturing of the ‘system’ of industrial
relations that existed in Britain prior to 1979 (Millward et al., 2000).
Over the last 20 years, these surveys, supplemented by a rich array of case-study
research (see e.g. Gollan, 2002; Oxenbridge and Brown, 2002; Terry, 1999), have
started to chart alternative approaches to the analysis of employee representation, by
indicating how many of the features previously summarised have been modified or
discarded and how many new ones have been adopted. Analysis of workplaces
outside the manufacturing and public sector heartlands of 1970s unionism has indi-
cated the adoption of new models of representation. However, much of this has been
informed by a prevailing mood of pessimism. This is clearly seen in the dominant view
of ‘workplace partnerships’ as representing not an exciting opportunity to redefine the
nature and purpose of workplace unionism as argued by its (predominantly trade
union) advocates but rather a compromised, weakened, self-defeating strategy (see
Terry, 2003, for a summary of competing arguments).
WERS 2004 enables us to take a fuller and richer view of the state of workplace
employee representation early in the 21st century than any of its predecessors. We are
not just mapping the new terrain of employee representation, but sifting through the
pieces of Great Britain’s increasingly varied system of industrial relations to identify
and describe the diversity. We are able to do this because the latest WERS probes
more carefully than before the dimensions of representative structure, processes of
engagement with employers and outcomes, both for organisations and employees. It
includes—and this too is an indication of the changed environment—the most thor-
ough survey evaluation to date of the extent and nature of non-union representative
systems. It also allows examination of the interplay between union and non-union
representatives in workplaces where they coexist.
The survey enables us to examine the extent to which traditional collective shop
steward-based employee representation still exists and the sectors and workplaces in
which it survives. It allows us to contrast this with different, allegedly weaker forms
of union representation, where a single shop steward works alone, or where there
is no shop steward present at all. The evidence from Kersley et al. (2006: 126)
suggests that union representation is not being replaced by non-union forms of
32121st-century models of employee representation
© 2007 The Author(s)
Journal compilation © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007

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