Gain from entering into the union spirit

Coarse employer tactics and the resultant strike action do not sit well with partnership, says Gregor Gall

What have Floplast, Arts Factory and Pick-a-Pack got in common? Yes they are companies most of us have never heard of – but more interestingly they have all been reported as sacking union activists engaged in union recognition campaigns in the past year.

The headlines may all pick up on the spirit of partnership between trade unions and employers, but the reality on the ground is more complicated.

At print firm Floplast in Kent, six print union members were sacked for taking a cigarette break outside the factory gates without clocking out. They were sacked for disciplinary reasons. But their union alleges this has been done to send a signal to the workforce: the union isn’t welcome here.

Undaunted, the members (who comprise over half the workforce) have taken three one-day official strikes to get re-instatement for the sacked staff. Their fight is also for union recognition to gain better wages and conditions.

The Floplast case is one of over 100 cases where unions are accusing employers of suppressing recruitment and recognition campaigns.

Employers are accused of tactics including sackings, dismissals and redundancies, or of threatening them, for violations of rules and regulations, and “under-performance”. Unions also claim employers have had spies at union meetings, videoed staff during work and break times and held captive presentations on how unionisation leads to falling company profits.

I believe the impulse behind these type of activities has been the approach and existence of the statutory mechanisms for gaining recognition within the Employment Relations Act 1999.

How does this fit with other employer responses to the question of union recognition? It has already been well established that most of those so far approached, where membership is significant, have signed voluntary deals. Other companies have attempted to pre-empt campaigns by offering employees a positive, often material reason, for not joining a union. This carrot approach contrasts markedly with the stick approach of which Floplast and others are accused. Here the spirit of partnership counts for nothing.

An obvious question is will there be more Floplasts, or for those of us with longer memories, any Grunwicks? The new laws and a more active union movement looking to re-establish itself after 20 years of managerial Thatcherism will inevitably mean unions will confront employers.

As unions sign new agreements some of the anti-union organisations may opt to settle for a “progressive” union. But this will still leave people like the manager and founder of Synseal windows, who told Channel 4 News recently, “This company is my company. I started it, I built it and I own it. I’m not prepared to tolerate their intrusion … We have made it clear to our workforce that if the new legislation created a situation where we were required to recognise unions then I would have to consider closing the company.”

Both the TUC and the Labour government are keen to play down these possibilities. Such actions and resultant strikes and picket lines don’t sit well with “partnership”.

Bodies like the CIPD, Industrial Society and IPA as well as leading HR and personnel managers should come out and condemn these autocratic employers and support the democratic right of workers for representation of their own choice.

Only if they do that will the spirit of partnership mean anything to employees.

• Gregor Gall is senior lecturer in industrial relations at the University of Stirling

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