One company culture no impediment to unions

An appropriate bargaining unit is the first step to company unionisation. A recent CAC ruling gives useful guidelines

Under the provisions allowing independent trade unions to claim compulsory recognition, one of the issues in the process is the determination of the appropriate bargaining unit of staff.

Briefly, the statutory procedure provides that if more than 50 per cent of the bargaining unit are already members of the union then, in most (but not all) cases, recognition will be awarded. Alternatively, if a ballot is held in the bargaining unit and at least 40 per cent of those entitled to vote and the majority of workers who do, vote in favour of recognition, recognition will be awarded.

Identifying the bargaining unit is therefore crucial. Under the statutory process, if the employer and the union do not agree on the bargaining unit the CAC must determine the issue and take into account “the need for the unit to be compatible with effective management” as the primary factor.

The Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) has now given its first decision determining the bargaining unit. For the increasing number of employers facing requests for recognition, the decision gives useful guidance as to how the CAC will approach this issue.

In the case of Benteler Automotive v ISTC (case no TUR1/4/00), the ISTC sought statutory recognition with a proposed bargaining unit consisting of 94 production operatives and material handlers who are weekly-paid, shopfloor staff. It did not include the monthly paid supervisors, technical or administrative staff. The ISTC and the company were unable to reach agreement on the appropriate bargaining unit.

The union argued that it is common practice in the manufacturing industry to have separate deals for shop floor staff and for technical, supervisory and administration staff. It also maintained that the weekly-paid, non supervisory employees had particular collective interests as distinct from other company employees and that Benteler itself distinguished between the different groups of employees in various ways, for example in respect of payment of Christmas bonuses and representation on the company council.

Benteler, on the other hand, argued that the proposed bargaining unit would hamper effective management and ignored the “one-company culture” which distinguished it from the traditional UK manufacturing industry. It also argued that, if the union-proposed bargaining unit were adopted, remaining groups of employees might seek recognition for different unions leading to fragmented bargaining with small units, which would again hamper effective management.

The CAC agreed with the union. Although it acknowledged that Benteler was aiming for a “whole-company, one-team” culture, this had not yet been achieved and, at this stage, the weekly-paid workers did not see themselves as part of a larger team. For the future, the CAC recognised the company’s concern for fragmented bargaining units impeding management in achieving the “whole-company” goals. However, since the union-proposed bargaining unit was not itself a small fragmented unit (covering the vast majority of workers as it did), the CAC did not consider that collective bargaining for that union would of itself give rise to demarcation.

Key points

  • This shows the issues which the CAC considers relevant to determining the bargaining unit, which includes the potential for future development within a company.

  • It will not always be possible for employers to argue the “company as one team” angle successfully. Relying on its own industrial relations experience, the CAC did not believe that collective bargaining would necessarily impede that.

By Sarah Lamont, partner at Bevan Ashford

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