Unions can still achieve old-fashioned victories over employers. Stephen Overell reports on the impact on the partnership approach to industrial relations
A shorter working week for train drivers won by just one day's strike at Connex; razor blades in envelopes to Communication Workers Union members who might vote for new working practices at the Post Office; and the prospect of white-collar Ford workers going on strike because they didn't get the same pay rise as their blue collar colleagues - long-in-the-tooth industrial spectators could be forgiven for thinking 'wa-hey, back to the good old days'.
These have not been a happy few weeks for partnership. At the yearly knees-up of the fraternity, the Anuman conference, Willy Coupar, director of the Involvement and Participation Association, accused some of seeking to "pocket the benefits" and then behave like partnership had never happened.
Distinctly old Labour-style victories by unions such as Aslef, which, like the main rail union the RMT, has a fair smattering of Socialist Labour Party members on its executive, have not helped matters - if anything they make the achievements of partnership look rather meagre.
Reality on the ground
The events perhaps underline what academics have long been warning about the partnership vogue: it may be fashionable to talk it up, but it does not really correspond to a widespread reality on the ground. It is certainly not to everyone's taste. "Partnership agreements have arisen from a very specific set of circumstances, rather than a general climate," says David Shepherd, editor of IRS Employment Trends.
He cites two of the best-known agreements - at Blue Circle and at Tesco. Blue Circle was being undercut by cheap European rivals and needed to restore competitiveness; Tesco was already the country's most successful food retailer and wanted to sustain its position by paying above the odds in return for better customer service. "Partnership fitted the commercial needs of the organisations," Shepherd says.
The Aslef-Connex relationship could not be more different. Even if Aslef had wanted a partnership with Connex, it was not going to happen. The French-owned company, serving Kent, south London, Surrey and Sussex, is known throughout the rail industry for its tough stance on industrial relations. One million pounds the poorer,