Has voice lost its value?

Yesterday, I attended the annual Voice and Value conference, co-hosted by CIPD and the London School of Economics.  The conference heard a range of perspectives from academics and practitioners, including a debate on whether legal rights to employee voice should be strengthened.

I don't recall anybody at the conference arguing that employees having a voice was a bad thing.  Nevertheless, if you regard the highest form of employee voice as some form of joint regulation of the workplace involving negotiation or consultation between managers and employee representatives - and quite a lot of people at the conference did seem to take this view - then the statistics are hardly encouraging.

The chart below, based on BIS analysis of the Labour Force Survey, shows the gradual decline in the proportion of employees who are members of a trade union.  Trade unionism is far more common in the public sector than the private sector, but the public sector is becoming an ever smaller part of the economy.

Trade union presence - the proportion of employees who say there is a trade union present at their workplace has fallen by less - down from 50% in 1996 to 44% in 2013.  The proportion of employees covered by collective bargaining has fallen over the same period by a similar amount, down from 36% in 1996 to 30% in 2013, with the drop being largest in the public sector, presumably because of extensions to the coverage of Pay Review Bodies.

If we look at the Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS), the chart below shows a ten percentage point fall in the proportion of workplaces covered by any form of employee representation between 2004 and 2011.  It is not simply a case of non-union representation being substituted for union representation.  Instead, what we see is the growth of direct interaction between management and employees through all staff meetings, team briefings and the like.

But the WERS surveys also contain data that seem to challenge the notion that workers are losing their voice.  The chart below shows answers to various questions put to employees in the 2004 and 2011 WERS.  These - and a number of other questions in a similar vein, not reported here - all show small but statistically significant increases in the proportions of employees satisfied with their influence at work or with positive views about the extent to which managers seek their views and take them into account when making decisions.


The data suggest that things are far from perfect, especially when it comes to perceived influence over the decisions that management take, where those satisfied are in a minority.  Nevertheless, these proportions have all increased during a period when the proportion of employees covered by representative structures has fallen.  Furthermore, for every single one of these measures, employees in non-union workplaces are more positive than employees where trade unions are present.  The data also suggest that employee perceptions of their personal influence over their job and how they do it are stronger than their perceptions of employee influence more broadly.

And here's another puzzler, taken from the 2010 European Working Conditions Survey, which asked employees whether they can influence decisions that are important for their work.

The European Participation Index, which measures participation through coverage of collective bargaining and state support for collective employee representation, has the UK languishing near the bottom of the European table.  However, this survey shows the UK in a more positive light.  Indeed, 6% more employees in the UK feel they can influence decisions affecting their work than employees in Germany!

Getting to the bottom of these data and their implications would take far more time and space than a blog permits.  For example, less employers might use collective representation but more employers seem to be paying attention to employee engagement, which emphasises two-way dialogue.  Nevertheless, these data remind us that there are many different ways in which employees can make their views known to management - looking at a few in isolation, might not tell the whole story.

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  • A good point here - with more collaborative ways of working, and a trend for companies to encourage regular staff meetings with managers, it is possible that employees feel more involved, and more able to raise their issues and recommendations without recourse to industrial level, union backed activity.  It is probably also a symptom of the higher number of small employers/self employed workers in the UK currently.  

  • Thanks Dorothy, the very smallest workplaces aren't always covered by these surveys and people working in them tend to be more satisfied with opportunities to have their say than people working in large workplaces - not least because they probably talk to whoever's in charge on a daily basis.  I suspect more employees might now prefer to make their views known directly to management rather than have them transmitted through a representative (even if that weakens their ability to exercise change through collective action) which echoes to an extent what we're seeing in the public sphere more generally.