The image of unions in the workplace is too often associated with placard-waving pickets. The reality is that unions are at their most visible when crises come to a head.
There's no doubt that we have seen such examples in the media over the past month. Most recently, the GMB union has become embroiled in the 90-day consultation between bosses and the 300 workers facing redundancy at Paramount Foods' pizza factories in Deeside and Salford, greater Manchester. The union is striving to find alternatives to the job losses.
But it would be a shame to stop at such a narrow picture of the work of unions, much of which is conducted behind the scenes.
GMB national officer Allan Black paints a picture of the variety of roles unions can play. "Not all union reps do pay bargaining. We sit in on disciplinary and grievance hearings, defend our members against bullying and harassment and get involved in health and safety issues and changes in shift patterns.
"Local reps at factory level defend staff against discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, age and ethnic origin and look at holiday pay, sick pay and threats to current employment."
Usdaw general secretary John Hannett says the activities of trade unions are expanding all the time. "Lifelong learning, work/life balance and family friendly policies are becoming increasingly important areas for discussions between employers and trade unions."
There has been a flurry of union efforts to secure funding for training initiatives to develop staff recently. Just last month, food and drink sector skills council Improve met with the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), Usdaw, the GMB, the Transport & General Workers Union and Amicus. The summit, held at Unite's offices in London and chaired by Iain MacLean, national officer for Amicus, aimed, in the words of Improve chief executive Jack Matthews: "to discuss how Improve can be best used by union learning reps to assist the strategy that it is delivering on behalf of employers to improve employees' skills"
The meeting looked at tailoring labour market data regularly compiled by Improve to the needs of learning reps in specific food and drink sectors and the requirements of specific occupations. "We wanted to establish a baseline of knowledge among union reps with the same information employers are using, so we can engender informed conversations between employers and reps on key skills issues," says Matthews.
The group explored how industry could learn from skills benchmarking initiatives from processors such as Northern Foods aimed at personnel and career development and job specific training for all employees.
In addition, the meeting discussed how Improve could work with Unionlearn, the organisation supporting union lifelong learning projects to promote the teaching of English to migrant workers. "This is a pressing problem," says Matthews. "We are not utilising the migrant workforce, many of whom are trained at Level 2, but have the skills that can be applied at a higher level and don't have the English to do this safely."
The BFAWU's efforts, supported by Unionlearn, to establish on-site learning centres for bakery manufacturers and the potential of similar schemes for the wider industry were also discussed.
According to Matthews, the summit was the largest joint Improve-union meeting. A follow-up event was expected a few weeks later.
The project follows previous union training initiatives. For example, Usdaw announced in May that it had signed agreements allowing its learning reps to work at Wrexham-based Kelloggs and First Milk factories, helping workers gain basic skills and qualifications.
Black says: "Learning reps help develop basic literary skills, because a large section of the workforce are migrant workers. Plus unions sit on the Learning and Skills Council. We try to develop skills that will be recognised at national level, because people need skills to be accredited and transferrable."
Training is not the only major issue at the forefront of union reps' minds. Organising migrant workers is a big issue, says Hannett. "Usdaw is making every effort to make union materials available in Polish, Slovakian, Portuguese and other languages. We are also encouraging migrant workers to come forward as union reps to help us organise non-UK workers."
Unions aim to boost workplace efficiency, says Black, because this protects workers' jobs. "The message we're trying to get across to management is that we have more in common with them than they think. We're keen to improve productivity and profitability, so we have a lot of shared goals and objectives."
He cites United Biscuits, with which the GMB is working to sweat its assets and find ways of getting more productivity out of existing plants. The union is trying to achieve this by helping bosses rearrange shift patterns and tackle absenteeism.
If firms do pursue redundancies, unions and management don't have to be at loggerheads, says Hannett. "I think some employers still have an old-fashioned view that trade unions are bad for business. However, some of the biggest and most successful businesses in the UK fully involve and consult with our trade union.
"We will look at alternatives to losing jobs, see if redundancies can be avoided and assist employees with individual and collective advice and representation." Employers are obliged to consult recognised union reps at the earliest possible opportunity where redundancies are concerned, Hannett says.
Black adds: "The first obligation of an employer is to mitigate job losses, so one of the first things they have to do is explain why they are closing plants. Assuming we can't jump that hurdle, we then look at redeploying staff to nearby factories." The process may involve retraining, he says.
It's clear that unions are not only the workers' friend, but ultimately the ally of the employer as well. It would seem to be in the interests of everyone in the industry to work with them to achieve goals that will mutually benefit bosses and employees alike. FM
Food technologist builds brains and brawn
Nick Mazza is not a run-of-the-mill new product development manager. When he's not devising creative food ideas for flatbreads processor Honeytop, he's working on an altogether different kind of development: his muscles!
Mazza, aged 22, has been an amateur bodybuilder for eight years and enters competitions across the UK, with the next one coming up in London in November. He returns to Honeytop after a year out completing a four-year food science and nutrition degree at Sheffield Hallam University, which included a year's placement at the firm.
He came to England from France seven years ago and studied food technology A-level before taking the undergraduate course. Explaining his career choice, Mazza says: "I'm French; food plays a major part in my culture. When I came to the UK, I had the opportunity to do an A-Level in Food Technology, which you can't do in France. It's easy to get into university to study food technology - you only need 160 points [equivalent to two Cs at A-Level] and there are lots of jobs in the food industry."
He was pleased to secure a place at Sheffield Hallam. "It's the best university for food science. It has the best facilities and the biggest course." The Honeytop placement made sense because it was based in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, where Mazza's mother lives. While he earned a small wage for the placement, he says although it was hard work, it was "a life-changing experience", which prepared him for his current role.
He is also enthusiastic about the way the academic side of the course meshed with its practical application in the workplace. Modules of particular relevance included innovation and food presentation, plus elements such as nutrition, quality management and food microbiology.
Your first thought is that there's no relation between his extra-curricular interests and his job, but Mazza corrects that impression. "Bodybuilding is 50% training, 35% nutrition and 15% rest, so nutrition plays a strong part."