Industrial relations through consensus

Gerry Sutcliffe, the new employment relations minister, wants to work more
closely with employers and unions in drafting future legislation. He says HR
must play a key role in preventing the return of poor industrial relations and
confrontation. By Ross Wigham

Gerry Sutcliffe intends to introduce a fresh approach to the role of
employment relations minister. However, some people may fail to notice that his
predecessor Alan Johnson has been replaced at all, such is the extent of the
similarities between them.

Both are committed Blairites, have similar union backgrounds, and represent
working class northern constituencies. They even look quite alike.

But despite the parallels, Sutcliffe, while confirming he intends to
continue the progress made by Johnson at the Department of Trade and Industry
(DTI), says he wants to be more inclusive of all stakeholders on the employment
scene.

"There won’t be major changes in the style of operation, but we are
different people and of course, react to things differently," he said.
"I’ve been in government quite a long time, so I’ve seen some of the
successes and failures of ministerial styles.

"I believe in consensus and trying to get people to go with you."

More inclusive culture

Essentially, Sutcliffe wants to adopt a new approach to employment legislation
that brings all sides to the table before the DTI makes a final decision.

He cites as an example, the way the DTI consulted in partnership with the
TUC and the CBI while drafting the Government’s plans to introduce the EU
Information and Consultation Directive (ICD). "We want to bring in people
on all sides of the argument, then create a framework for legislation. It’s not
right that a government just imposes regulations."

The ICD, which comes into force for larger firms in 2005, places a duty on
employers to consult with staff in more detail and at an earlier stage on
issues affecting employment.

Sutcliffe hopes the rules will establish a more inclusive culture, where
staff will feel more involved and motivated because they are more closely involved
with decisions that affect the business. "Just getting bits of information
about redundancies is not what this is about, that would be a negative
situation. It’s about where an organisation is going, where people are going,
how training is being developed and making the staff feel valued," he
said.

The ICD will give staff the right to be informed and consulted on issues
such as redundancies, changes to work organisation, contractual relations and
the overall economic outlook for the industry. "In a global economy we
need a flexible labour market with safeguards in terms of employment rights.

"We’ve made sure this is a framework document that can be flexible in
different types of organisations. It also offers an opportunity for the unions
to show their relevance in the 21st century," said Sutcliffe.

"It’s about the acceptance and promotion of a concept that can work in
the UK and across Europe. It will improve our competitive edge, and the framework
gives people a new opportunity to resolve difficulties."

Sutcliffe believes the ICD is indicative of the changing employment climate
– not just in the UK but globally. Companies are under increasing pressure to
become employers of choice that involve and engage their workforce so they can
attract the best people in an increasingly competitive labour market.

"The labour market is changing – and we’re not talking about the old
days of command and control where employers laid out conditions and everybody
else responded.

"Employers have to compete now because attitudes have changed," he
explained.

Sutcliffe believes the DTI should be promoting legislation that reflects the
ongoing transformation of the nature of work in general, while helping the UK
create a workforce that can compete in the global economy.

"The goal is full employment and making sure people are in work. I want
there to be a balance between legitimate and fair employment rights and
legislation that doesn’t impact dramatically on jobs or employers," he
said.

"Employers can often be negative about legislation, but we’re trying to
make sure our regulations are relevant to both sides and don’t jeopardise
business."

He believes the DTI has the best record for introducing workable legislation
of any government department, something he claims has been acknowledged by the
Better Regulation Task Force.

While aware he will come under pressure on occasion from both employers and
unions, Sutcliffe is not unduly concerned about the recent resurgence of a more
militant trade union movement.

And he claims employers shouldn’t worry too much about the so-called
‘awkward squad’ – the group of left-wing union leaders pushing for more
old-fashioned Labour ideals such as Bob Crow at the RMT and Tony Woodley at the
T&G, because "there’s a bit of rhetoric there, and the new people have
to establish their credentials".

"There’s a great rate of change in employment relations, especially
with all the new general secretaries at the unions," he said. "I think
people in new positions often have to show support to those who have elected
them."

But while accepting that the unions are evolving, he challenges the notion
that new battle lines have been drawn, dismissing some of the more outrageous
claims as political posturing. "New lines are being drawn up within the
movement and it’s perfectly legitimate for them to have a political view. I
want to meet people quickly to find out what they stand for and what their real
agendas are," he said.

Union modernisation

Having been a deputy branch secretary at print unions SOGAT/ GPMU and leader
of Bradford City Council, Sutcliffe has seen employment disputes from both
sides of the fence. He was devastated when 25,000 jobs were lost in his
Bradford constituency during his time as a councillor there, but was equally
confounded by the Conservative attitude to the unions during the 1980s.

Sutcliffe cites his experience of the printers’ strikes as an official with
the GPMU as the most negative of his life and doesn’t believe either side wants
to see a return to that confrontational industrial relations culture.

The minister praises the work of former TUC general secretary John Monks for
his modernisation of the unions and sees industrial action as a failure for
both unions and employers.

"I’ve seen the devastation to communities that a breakdown in
employment relations can cause," he said.

Sutcliffe believes HR can play a key role in preventing this type of
confrontation by acting as a conduit to help improve the world of work and
drive the UK economy forward on a global scale.

"I want to look at the big picture in that we don’t want bad employers.
We want companies that value their workforce and offer good rates [of pay] and
in return they’ll get reinvestment and higher productivity," he said.

Sutcliffe’s CV

2003                Employment Relations Minister

2000-03           Government
whip, Vice Chamberlain of the Household

1992-94           Leader,
Bradford City Council

1980-94           Deputy
branch secretary SOGAT/GPMU
                        Director, Bradford
Training and Enterprise Council

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