Test case could set the rules on union choice

A landmark case which could dictate how much freedom an employer will have to choose the union it wants to recognise has gone to the regulator.

It is one of the first applications made to the Central Arbitration Committee since the trade union recognition laws came into force last month.

The Prison Officers Association is claiming a firm that runs private prisons has gone against the spirit of the Employment Relations Act by recognising another union with fewer members.

Mark Healy, national chairman of the POA, said Premier Prison Services’ decision to recognise the Prison Services Union instead of the POA at Doncaster Prison was “an abuse of the thrust of the law”. He said the union saw it as a test case for the CAC.

Of the 350 prison officers at Doncaster, 302 belong to the POA, but under the deal they will be represented by the PSU.

“The whole thrust of the law was to allow people to be represented by the union of their choice. The situation at Doncaster simply cannot be right,” he said.

But Premier Prison’s HR director Graeme Rothwell said the PSU was the right choice and the company has done nothing wrong.

The agreement is company-wide, covering all Premier’s 2,700 staff in its four prisons and its prison escort services.

Although the POA has a stronger representation at Doncaster, overall the PSU has the most support with around 800 members, mostly in the escort services, he said.

He added the company did not feel it could work with the POA. “The POA has been quite clear that it fundamentally opposes private sector prisons and we would find it difficult to work with an organisation that would rather we didn’t exist,” Rothwell said.

The PSU had offered it a genuine partnership, he said.

Phil Hornsby, general secretary of the PSU, said, “Premier did some soundings with their employees and most of them wanted the PSU to be recognised.”

By Dominique Hammond

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