This article addresses the question: what impact do trade unions have on employee trust in management? Using nationally representative data on employees in the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) 1998, we assess associations between measures of unionisation and employee perceptions that managers usually keep their promises to employees. The article provides broad support for the three hypotheses explored here. First, employee trust in managers is higher where there is a balance of power between unions and management at the workplace. Secondly, employees’ trust in managers is higher where management supports union membership, and is lowest where management actively discourages membership. This is equally true among employees in unionised and non-unionised workplaces. Thirdly, employees’ perceptions of union effectiveness are positively associated with higher trust in management.
The positive association between managerial support for union membership and employee trust in management can be interpreted in various ways. But the finding suggests that management can influence employee perceptions of them for better or for worse through their engagement with unions.
Management can also foster a high trust relationship with employees by ensuring that unions have sufficient power to make a positive contribution to the running of the workplace, since unions with the ‘right amount of power’ are associated with higher trust in management. Weak unions are particularly bad for employee perceptions of management, raising the question why employers often recognise unions for pay bargaining, but preside over a decline in union strength at the workplace.
Unions are best able to create a climate in which employees trust management where they are perceived to be doing their job well, where they have regard to union members’ problems and complaints, and where they contribute to the smooth running of the workplace. In these circumstances, trust in management is generally no different from that found among employees in non-unionised workplaces. However, where unions are viewed as ineffective, trust in management is lower than in comparable non-unionised workplaces.