J Sainsbury and Eurotunnel support them but many managers oppose national work councils. 'There is an image of trade unions, beer and skittles, and wage negotiations,' says Jeff Bakes, global human resources consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Richard Wilson, business policy executive for the Institute of Directors (IoD), is dismissive. 'Although it is useful to communicate within a company, works councils are against the IoD's principles,' he states. 'We do not support industrial democracy.'
Opponents might not have the choice much longer. Currently, the UK and Ireland are the only EU states without legal requirements to establish national works councils, but for how long? The Department of Trade and Industry is going into consultation about them this autumn - prompted by the UK's need to comply with a European directive by the end of next year. According to a survey released this summer by The Industrial Society, the majority of UK employers favour the introduction of statutory consultative works councils for employees.
Sainsbury has had a works council in place since November 1996 and sees the introduction as a positive move. 'We realised that there was a communication gap as far as colleagues were concerned. We were looking for a mechanism to fill that,' says Carolyn Gray, senior manager for HR policy. Initially the company was cautious.
It took almost a year to carry out research and benchmarking exercises before going ahead. Council members are trained how to chair in a participative way, how to reflect the views of constituents, how to canvass and how to report back, explains Gray. The councils focus on grass-roots issues such as store performance, local competition and new technology. 'They give us a better view about what's going on and issues are getting put right at a local level,' Gray says.
Eurotunnel has a similarly positive stance although the driver to set up the council was its dual-nationality status. 'The council, now five years old, reinforces the interests of all departments subjugated to a common good,' says human resources director Al Hardy. The council avoids the us and them characteristics of union negotiations and provides a free forum in which to exchange views.
It is difficult to draw up a blueprint for success but there are certain prerequisites. 'You need genuine commitment on the part of the management to listen to employees,' says Eleanor Campion, acting chief representative of Eurotunnel's company council. The councils need room to evolve and it is important not to assume it will work from day one, or in year one in the same way it does three years later, she says. At Eurotunnel, the council - originally fairly passive - now gets involved far more in consultation and negotiation.
However great the experiences of Sainsbury and Eurotunnel, it remains difficult to know what to expect. Legislation is one possibility but industry commentators reckon that a voluntary code of practice would be more likely.
The danger of legislation is that employers, 'punch drunk' with the stuff, might be tempted to ignore new laws or to act on them without thought, says Sheila Gunn, head of employment law at Edinburgh firm Shepherd & Wedderburn. Bakes of PricewaterhouseCoopers agrees. 'Legislation has the inevitable problem of implementation. If you impose Draconian work councils, it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. We want industry to be more efficient,' he says.