View recognition as a 21st century issue

Union recognition is back on the agenda and heading your way in less than a month. The hardy perennial of industrial relations is set to raise its head once more as this controversial section of the government’s Employment Relations Act kicks in on 6 June.

Never a clear-cut issue, union recognition raises hackles on both sides. Many employers see stroppy trade unionists trying to force their way into a position of power on the shopfloor. The unions in turn want proper recognition of their position as representatives of the workforce and as a voice for employee grievances.

Make no mistake, this could be a troublesome issue for many companies. Sir Michael Burton, newly-installed head of the Central Arbitration Committee, has said he expects to hear as many as 150 recognition cases in his first year and the actual total could be double that.

Unions are reporting that they are already talking with companies in the run-up to 6 June where recognition claims are likely to be pushed forward. A couple of early high-profile recognition victories could easily persuade jittery managers that militant trade unionists are back on the march.

But are we really in anything like that situation? Industrial relations have moved significantly away from the pitched battles of the 1970s and 80s. Even if there are widespread victories for unions it is unlikely they will adopt the tactics of a generation ago.

Even with the onset of the Employment Relations Act unions are still shackled by Tory employment legislation. And the unions themselves have modernised.

As the AEEU’s John Lloyd suggests in Personnel Today this week, one thing unions can provide an organised expression of workplace opinion that is unbiased. There are even reports of companies that de-recognised unions in the past considering getting them back in.

Of course such cases will be, no doubt, few and far between. But they do point to a positive side to the story. Union recognition will be a tricky issue for some employers, and present some big challenges for HR.

But it is important to recognise how much has changed and it is not too much to expect that many recognition deals could be a good thing for both sides.

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