Silence of the lambs

first_img Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos. Silence of the lambsOn 1 Nov 2000 in Personnel Today With only 10 disputed cases in its first four months, the union recognitionlegislation has hardly whipped up a storm. Philip Whiteley investigatesDubbed the dog that didn’t bark, the union recognition legislation came intoeffect this summer to the benign indifference of the nation’s politicians andmedia. With only 10 cases in its first four months of activity, the CentralArbitration Committee, which was entrusted with new powers for arbitrating onclaims, has hardly been at the centre of an industrial storm. Examples of the cases include the successful recognition claim lodged bybanking union Unifi on behalf of 22 employees at the Bank of Ceylon, and thefailed application by the Iron & Steel Trades Confederation at Bausch andLomb – where the CAC held the AEEU union already had a valid agreement. It is a far cry from the Grunwick dispute in the 1970s, when the then Labourgovernment’s union recognition law was resisted by an employer in an uglydispute that saw picket-line confrontations and the remarkable sight ofgovernment ministers joining the protests. “We are actually rather pleased by the fact that the numbers are notgreat,” says Sir Michael Burton, chairman of the CAC. “Theindications that we have are that there have been a great many voluntaryagreements against the background of the introduction of the legislation.”Data both from the conciliation service Acas and from an annual survey bylaw firm DLA indicate a sharp increase in voluntary deals. Jointly the twosources indicate that there have been twice as many voluntary agreements so farthis year as in the whole of 1999, says Burton. “One does not want to sound too optimistic, as we are still in theearly stages. I do not think we would have wanted a rush of applications as weare slowly developing jurisprudence.” Numbers have picked up slightly since the beginning of October, but thenature of the claims is not increasing in complexity. Burton reports that”in our training we dealt with imaginary scenarios which were all moredifficult than the ones we have had to face in practice”. He says the subdued start is proof that the system is working in deterringoverly ambitious claims. In particular, the three-year ban on a follow-uprecognition claim after a failed one has been a deterrent. He points out that the CAC has a statutory duty to encourage a voluntarydeal. A number of formal applications have been withdrawn as the CAC refers thesides to Acas or itself acts as intermediary between employer and union. Oneexample was at the Millennium Dome, where the employers originally opposed thenotion of a bargaining unit comprising the welcoming staff put forward by theunion Equity. After an initial meeting with the CAC panel the two sides strucka deal. The Government always insisted a formal process should be the last resort,and it has applied belt and braces to ensure it is seen that way. Quiteingeniously, it seems equally unpalatable to unions and managers alike. An employer has every reason to avoid a forced recognition deal, because ofthe duties in place on a firm to give access to company facilities, which canbe avoided with a voluntary deal. But there are so many hurdles for the unionto cross before getting there – and a three-year ban on repeating a failedapplication – that it, too, would rather sue for peace in most cases. Roger Steel, employment relations expert at law firm Eversheds, says,”Unions do not have any form of access to the workforce to persuade themuntil they have already had to satisfy the test of 10 per cent membership andlikely support from 50 per cent of the relevant workforce. “The employer has all sorts of opportunities for doing surveys on a captiveaudience of the staff and to run their own persuasive campaign.” A union’s only right of access is to support an individual in a grievance ordisciplinary matter – and a few employers have begun holding such meetings offsite, Steel reports. Unions must stay “outside the gates”, a position from which it isdifficult to compile convincing evidence of sufficient union membership within.Moreover the three-year ban applies from whenever the union fails after receiptof the bid by the CAC, not just if the full process is exhausted (see box). Nonetheless, some hawkish voices predict an upsurge in cases, based on twofactors. One is the possibility of the Conservatives winning a General Electionnext year – unions would want to rush through a recognition deal before WilliamHague pulls up the drawbridge. The other is the new law this autumn preventing employers from dismissingpeople taking part in a lawful strike. The theory is that as it becomes easierto hold industrial action, then strikes will be held in support of recognitionclaims and more pressure can be brought to bear on employers. There are obvious problems with both arguments. First of all theConservatives still look unlikely to win and the year or two left between nowand a possible repeal of the law still leaves a huge challenge in clearing theobstacles to a successful bid. On the other matter, increased industrial action could backfire on theunion. Many of their recruitment campaigns are based on the appeal that theyhave put their militant ways behind them, so membership could rapidly nosediveshould talk of strikes reappear. Steel of Eversheds argues that the days of all-out industrial war are overfor good. So do unions and employers agree? There are certainly considerable differences from the 1970s. Higher levelsof skills, and a greater degree of competition, mean the interests of labourand capital have much greater overlap. Confrontation by either side amounts tosawing away at the branch that both are sitting on. Sir Ken Jackson, pioneer of partnership at the engineering union the AEEU,says, “The prospects now are excellent to build a genuinely new approach.Across many unions there is an understanding that partnership is the only realoption. With confrontation unions would weaken their own influence andcompanies would go bust.” He claims the change is deeply rooted and likely to last. “Years ago ifthe AEEU raised the issue of partnership it was booed off the platform. Now,everyone is fighting to prove who is the more committed to it.” The union lists productivity gains and lifelong learning as two of itsstrategic aims in any recognition deal. Any private firm that does not alsoinclude these is going to struggle irrespective of union recognitionlegislation. Moreover the AEEU spends £5m a year on skills training for itsmembers, saving money for employers which recognise it. That is the positive side. On the other hand, unemployment is still falling,pay awards are edging up and the hand of the union is getting stronger. Couldthe commitment to cosy voluntary deals be just a veneer? Employers accept that some union leaders are converts to partnership. Butthe acceptance is nervous. “At the top level of most trade unions there isnow a recognition that unions work more effectively when they are pursuingshared objectives with management,” says Dominic Johnson, head of employeerelations at the CBI. But he adds, “It would be complacent to suggest that because therhetoric is now about partnership that partnership is truly being delivered.For example we have seen significant increases in balloting activity for strikeaction, suggesting that brinkmanship remains an important part of thecollective bargaining round. “It would be too early to say that there has been a sea change inindustrial relations in the past 18 months.” He argues that many of the easier deals have now been done, and that fewagreements have featured joint training for managers and union representativeson partnership working. Diary of a dispute Benteler Automotive vs the Iron & Steel Trades Confederation (alldates this year)25 July – The ISTC union submits an application to the Central ArbitrationCommittee that it should be recognised for collective bargaining by BentelerAutomotive.16 August – The company submits its response. The CAC sets up a panel andappoints a case manager. The panel asks the company and the union for lists of employees and members,and concludes that 57 per cent of people in the relevant bargaining unit aremembers. It decides a majority are in favour of collective bargaining becausemany have joined the union in recent months in the full knowledge that theunion is engaged in a campaign to achieve recognition.18 August – The union’s application is accepted by the CAC.For details on this and all other cases referred to the CAC go The hurdles at which a union might fall– The CAC decides that the relevant bargaining unit has fewer than 21 people– The employer requests intervention of Acas and the union refuses– The CAC decides that less than 10 per cent of the relevant bargaining unitare union members– The CAC decides that the appropriate bargaining unit is different– Fewer than half of the relevant employees are deemed in favour of collectivebargaining or the ballot (a majority in favour and at least 40 per cent ofeligible voters in all) is lost.last_img read more