A new dawn for union deals?

Union recognition deals with employers have doubled in the past two years. Stephen Overell asks if this reflects a new maturity in industrial relations

Legislation on trade union recognition is making a difference, if not on working life then certainly on the numbers. According to a new report, Trade Union Recognition in Britain, the annual number of new deals being signed has more than doubled from 1998.

Last year, 267 new agreements were signed, compared with 104 in 1998. The number of people covered by recognition since Labour came to office is now more than 180,000, says the report. This is impressive really, since during the period of the last experiment in union recognition law – the Employment Protection Act 1975, scrapped by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 – only 141,000 employees were brought into union membership as a direct result of the legislation.

Research for this report was done long before 6 June, when compulsory recognition came into force, and it shows employers still favour the voluntary route. The researchers, from Stirling University and the Labour Research Department, used data from the Trade Union Trends surveys and carried out interviews with union officials and employers. They also monitored 30 union journals and newsletters.

Shadow of an Act

Attitudes were predictable. A refusal to grant recognition was seen as “not conducive to good industrial relations”. The shadow of an Act of Parliament loomed. In some quarters, good relations with unions held the prospect of protecting a reputation, gaining good publicity, legitimacy in a community, even winning more contracts.

Despite the CBI’s continued scepticism about the idea, the researchers also found that many employers are coming around to the business case for trade unionism. Unions could be used to foster better communication, involvement, participation, flexibility or competitiveness. Employers were largely neutral or pragmatic about the issue.

So why, if employers take such pragmatic attitudes, are partnership agreements not more common in all this activity? After all, it’s fashionable and it’s government policy. Yet most of the new agreements are old-style deals covering information, representation, consultation and bargaining.

“Partnership is less influential on the content of new agreements than is widely assumed,” the authors say.

“Recognition should not be taken as a sign of a shift in philosophy,” says John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society. “All the research on partnership shows that it marks a genuine commitment from both sides, so we should not necessarily expect to see a correlation between recognition agreements rising and more partnership.”

But the research does note that the two intertwine on a more cynical level. As a rebranding exercise for unions, partnership has been an absolute triumph.

“From the trade union perspective, they [the unions] have found the language of partnership to be very effective in their dealings with employers,” says Willy Coupar, director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA). “But there is in my view a real danger about the way in which the terminology is used to describe different things. There seems to be a lack of clarity,” he adds.

This notorious lack of clarity in the term “partnership” is perhaps the philosophy’s principal advantage and its fundamental weakness. Weakness because it is hard to sell something so vague, and advantage because it can be injected with meaning as suits the moment

Reported agreements signed by engineering union the AEEU have a partnership that agrees to “no disruption” clauses: what, the left might argue, can a union then do to defend its members? A TGWU official has been quoted as saying, “Partnership is fine so long as the union retains the ability to kick the other partner in the nuts.”

So what, the right might argue, is the point of partnership if a union is not pursuing good employee relations with good employers?

Similarly, there is another strand of thought that believes paragraphs and clauses have little to do with partnership at all. This strand believes partnership is a psychological phenomenon in the workplace that is inimical to codification and contracts, and as soon as you start swapping this for that between unions and management it is not partnership at all but horse-trading and bargaining in the time-honoured techniques of industrial relations.

Piece of paper

“I am not really hung up on the idea that partnership has to be a piece of paper,” says Coupar. “There are few things more divisive than partnership.”

The new recognition agreements are in their infancy. Perhaps partnership does not figure prominently because it does not need to; perhaps the political language of “mature” relationships – as in “harmonious” – will be matched in reality for statutory recognition the second time around. Time will tell. From this report, it would appear that partnership is not really relevant unless unions and managers are at war with each other – or expect to be at war with each other in the future.

Peter Reilly, principal research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies, puts it like this: “We know that in its purest form, partnership is an alternative to antagonistic industrial relations. Interests inevitably clash and with good relations you can better cope with the results.”

• Report: Trade Union Recognition in Britain: the dawn of a new era? by Dr Gregor Gall, senior lecturer in industrial relations, department of management and organisation, University of Stirling and Dr Sonia McKay, employment law researcher, Labour Research Department. Price £25. Tel: 01786 467315

Union recognition: what is the real picture

• Evidence suggests that when membership is between 45-55 per cent, explicit campaigning for recognition can begin. Other unions believe a credible campaign can be built from a lower membership base

• Successful campaigns where there is employer opposition to unions share the following characteristics: belief in persistent collective injustice among employees, low turnover, small band of committed union activists, good external support and sympathetic press coverage

• The bulk of successful campaigns for recognition last less than a year

• Ballots to assess membership are few: only 28 ballots have been held for recognition between 1997-2000, showing employers are not insisting on them

• Turnout is very high in recognition ballots: a third had turnout in the 70-79 per cent category

• General union GMB leads with 111 new deals, followed by the TGWU with 97, AEEU with 59, GPMU and MSF both with 46 and Unison with 30

• Only 10 cases of multi-union agreements have been signed in the past five years

• Eight per cent of workplaces have a union presence but no recognition. Of these, average density is 23 per cent

• Employer hostility persists. Between 1997-1999, 199 companies were known to have at least 50 per cent in membership of unions, but only 41 granted recognition

Source:Trade Union Recognition in Britain

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