How activist groups became a force in workplace relations

Groups like Stonewall have become big players in the workplace. Linzi, CC BY-SA

A key event in the British employment calendar is the publication of the Workplace Equality Index each January. It is a ranking of the top-100 “gay-friendly” employers by Stonewall, the UK’s main campaigning organisation for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

In a similar vein, campaigning by community network Citizens UK has helped bring to prominence the notion of the living wage – a wage calculated to provide a minimum decent standard of living to workers who receive it. The latter’s sister organisation, the Living Wage Foundation, operates a procedure through which more than 1000 employing organisations have been accredited as living wage employers.

Both are examples of civil society organisations’ growing role in employment relations. According to our research, there are now about 400 such organisations trying to influence domestic employment in the UK. They usually rely on charitable donations and grants and sometimes also contracts with government to provide services to fund their activities.

They include advisory and advocacy organisations such as Citizens Advice; equality organisations such as Age UK, Action On Hearing Loss and Arthritis Care; and campaigning organisations concerned with single issues like safety at work or bullying.

What they do

Over the past three decades, British employment relations have become more complex and fragmented. Where once there were just trade unions there are now multiple channels of worker voice. Activist organisations form part of that by providing work-related services to individuals, helping to develop government policy and shaping employment practices beyond the letter of the law.

For workers, they provide information, advice and advocacy (some such as Citizens Advice concentrate on this kind of work). They also help workers find or retain work and build careers. For example Women in Film and Television offers training, mentoring, networking and job-placement services. This is a different approach to trade unions, who would typically only support training within the employer organisation.

The alternative to union advice? Duncan Andison

In their dealings with the different branches of government, civil society groups sometimes seek to exert pressure through publicising an issue. But more frequently they behave as political insiders, responding to government requests for information and advice, serving on commissions and committees, and often receiving substantial funding to provide services or help implement policy. Much of this is of course equally true of trade unions, with whom these groups sometimes form alliances to secure particular changes to the law.

Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index is an example of an attempt to influence employment practices beyond the law. Groups try to influence employers in numerous ways – offering corporate membership or developing partnerships to promote particular initiatives. Cancer charity Macmillan has for instance worked with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to promote good practice around workers with cancer.

Identifying good practice and enshrining it in voluntary codes, advice or standards is another common strategy – and was the most striking finding in our research. Groups offered things like training and consultancy, written guides, audit tools, benchmarking, award schemes and accreditation.

They sell these packages by strongly articulating the business case for diversity – tangible performance benefits, corporate reputation and so forth. And often they appear to have succeeded: employers have broadly embraced diversity management since the 1980s, and many want to develop positive “employer brands” through high-profile policies of corporate social responsibility.

Why employment?

There are several reasons why these groups have become more involved in employment issues. Most obviously, there has been an urgent need. Carers UK and Independent Age have, for instance, been drawn into campaigning on work-life balance because their constituents face major problems in combining paid employment with child and eldercare.

The rise of social activism since the 1960s has also played a part in making the likes of older people, GLBTI people, and more latterly faith groups more assertive. Activist groups saw an opportunity to help governments develop relevant policies and then to help employers interpret and implement the laws that emerged. The private voluntary regulation then uses the law as a base from which to further extend.

The rise of social activism has made such groups an inevitable workplace presence. Kunai Mehta

The decline of trade union membership and collective bargaining in recent decades was also an opportunity. This has been particularly relevant to general advocacy groups such as Citizens Advice and groups whose campaign themes draw them to largely non-union sectors like construction – over migrant workers’ rights, for example.

Yet these organisations don’t only thrive where unions are absent. Many are most active in the heavily unionised public sector for precisely the same reasons as unions: the “good employer” tradition renders management receptive. And unions have also adapted to the rise of new social movements themselves, negotiating collective agreements that recognise equality in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on. Partly for this reason, unions and civil society organisations commonly work jointly and often reinforce rather than replace one another.

Pros and cons

So how do civil society organisations fare in employment overall? When it comes to representing individuals, they have the advantage of being attuned to the distinct needs of their constituents. But their main weakness is that generally they don’t have a presence at the workplace – unlike trade unions – which limits their ability to make decisive interventions. They also often only have modest resources to commit.

In these austerity years the government has been reluctant to introduce further labour market regulation. Many organisations’ dependence on state funding also risks pushing them to a more consensual or less controversial agenda than their constituents may require.

Activist groups’ efforts to develop private voluntary codes with employers are meanwhile susceptible to the same weaknesses as any voluntary regulation: the incentive to comply is often highly variable between employers and over time. The same is true with employers’ accreditation systems. Stonewall has developed audit methods to get around this difficulty, but it remains a potential weakness.

Finally there is a downside to how these groups work with trade unions. They commonly told us they had constructive relationships, but that is often where they are jointly lobbying for a policy. In other areas, the relationship has sometimes been more fraught. Unions complain about civil society organisations dealing directly with employers “over the heads” of workers and their representatives, while civil society organisations counter that unions are neglecting the needs of their worker constituents.

Relations between activists and trade unions could be better. 1000 Words

To the extent the two sides can overcome their differences, they can help one another. To address the big problem of civil society organisations’ relative absence from the workplace, there may be scope for more joint work with unions focusing specifically on workplace activity. This could help ensure the activist campaigns, policies and codes are sustained over time.