The future of industrial relations and the prospect of closing the gender pay gap have been called into question as two leading unions face legal action over equal pay dealings.
Unison, the UK's largest union, is facing more than 900 claims by female members who believe they have been shortchanged in equal pay disputes.
Last week, the union vetoed equal pay discussions at its annual conference to avoid “legal jeopardy”.
Unison's concerns were triggered by the news that the GMB union may have to pay out £1m in compensation claims to more than 100 female workers from Middlesbrough Borough Council. A tribunal ruled that the workers had been wrongly advised to accept an equal pay deal. The union is appealing against the ruling.
The TUC said these were pivotal cases for the future of industrial relations.
“This judgment is clearly of great interest and concern to the entire trade union movement,” a TUC spokesman said. “We'll be watching the appeal closely. It threatens many of the foundations of UK industrial relations.”
Duncan Brown, assistant director-general of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said equal pay laws were “a mess”.
“Organisations should not be addressing these issues because of the legislation, but because getting employees' commitment depends on treating them fairly,” he said.
Jenny Watson, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), said: “Unions play a crucial role in tackling unequal pay through collective bargaining, supporting tribunals, and providing advice and information to members.”
Unison, which has 1.3 million members, almost two-thirds of whom are female, has taken legal advice about the implications of the ruling against the GMB.
The DTI will shortly announce details of hearings to discuss how the government can implement the recommendations of the Women and Work Commission on how to close the gender pay gap.