European labour law still has the capacity to change all our lives. While it
always takes ages, seems to need the input of thousands, is overly long and
written in a style all its own, it still has an impact everywhere.
The new information and consultation directive is the usual dull, worthy and
somewhat tedious stuff. But, I encountered it working in two very different
environments last week.
The first was a small engineering works, whose equipment is ancient but
whose economic challenge from Chinese competition is bang up-to-date. The
company has just over 100 employees – half in the union, and half not.
The lack of financial resources was obvious, but so was the need to improve
productivity without the necessary equipment to compete on a world stage.
Inevitably, all eyes turn to the workforce to see if there is more they can
contribute. The company has voluntarily proposed to introduce a works council
in line with the European directive, way ahead of the Government’s over-extended
A meeting of the unionised workforce was held, and addressed by two union
officers. They explained the differences between works councils and traditional
It provoked a wide-ranging debate. Some thought the company had never told
people enough, and that a works council would dilute union influence. Others
thought that works councils obliged the company to disclose more than ever
before, and would give the members a better understanding of the commercial
realities affecting their company.
But, above all, the members felt it would stimulate the union into
supporting the works councillors to understand the issues affecting the global
economy – increasing local effectiveness.
The managers in the plant could see this too. Consulting with non-union
people is fair and reasonable, but the progress of the company will only be
assured by the workforce and company developing together – and that process is
too difficult to do with dozens of individuals. Only a representative body can
have the independent support from outside to improve the skills of the reps on
the works council.
At my next meeting, senior representatives and managers from the steel
industry were gathered for a weekend conference.
One of the speakers was the chairman of Corus’ European Works Council. The
big issue he outlined was the impact of Brazilian steel on Corus’ European
endeavours. The message was the same despite the difference in scale – once we
understand what’s going on and are given a chance to make social partnership
work, we can help companies achieve everyone’s needs. A bedrock of effective
consultation is the first step to mutual understanding. Without it, everyone
By John Lloyd, National Officer, Amicus