Purpose – This paper aims to examine union and non-union consultation and representative arrangements at South West Water (SWW) over a ten-year period, from 1992 to 2002. Design/methodology/approach – The paper attempts to fill the gap in the current research by examining the processes leading from union derecognition, non-union employee representation (NER), to recognition of union representation using SWW as an example. Findings – The SWW experience suggests that any representative structures within firms need to have full support of the majority of employees and to have been seen as being organic to the workplace rather than an imposed arrangement by management. Without such a bottom-up approach, the legitimacy and respect for such arrangements will diminish, creating obstacles for developing meaningful dialogue and trust between management, staff and unions. For unions, maintaining high membership density, while no guarantee of continuing recognition, creates an environment of strong union organisation and representation at workplace level. Originality/value – As the experience at SWW has shown, where unions have been excluded from the workplace, maintaining a presence through the representation of individual employee interests and through colonisation of NER structures has been shown to pay dividends in the long run. However, a recognition agreement is not enough on its own to secure new members and unions need to be effective and relevant to the workforce.