This spring the Government is publishing Fairness at Work, a White Paper, which will map out proposals for compelling employers to recognise trade unions on the proviso that a majority of the workforce votes for collective recognition.
Last year, the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) advised the Government that such recognition should be voluntary wherever possible. But in some key areas, such as the balloting process, whether training should be subject to collective bargaining and whether 'small' firms should be subject to such legislation, both parties were unable to reach agreement.
Jonathan Edwards, the CBI's trade union adviser, says that some large companies are fearful that such agreements could lead to more inflexible working practices. 'Companies that operate highly successful and effective models of employee consultation and involvement would not want those arrangements to be undermined by having to go into more formal negotiations,' he suggests.
Those companies that have negotiated numerous individual contracts on different pay scales may also fear that collective agreements could undermine their flexibility to negotiate such contracts in future. If there is a fundamental need to reorganise a business, it is possible that a single employee representative body could be less flexible in dealing with such a reorganisation, adds Edwards. Equally, if small firms are forced to recognise unions, this would entail formalising practices that had hitherto been relatively informal.
Yet, as Edwards points out: 'Some of the most forward-looking unions promote agreements that take into account the flexible needs of business very well. It depends largely on the history of industrial relations within a particular sector or company.' Unions in the UK are much more advanced than their continental counterparts in recognising that a flexible and trained skilled workforce is the way forward, he adds.
Peter Mitchell, senior policy officer at the TUC, does not believe the new law will lead to a less flexible labour force. 'Working patterns will be more affected by the EU's Working Time Directive (WTD) than by the recognition legislation. The WTD provides for derogations from the directive provided that there is an agreement with workers' representatives. So, in fact, union recognition can give you more scope for getting flexibility on working patterns because you need to have some formal employee representation structure in order to be able to negotiate such flexibility.'
Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors, is less convinced. 'If you are talking about the ability of management to run the business and organise the workforce as they want to, then clearly it will mean a decline in that flexibility,' she claims. 'It's one thing more they have to think about, it's one less degree of freedom they have got. We are very opposed to it.'
As for industry itself, a spokesman for British Steel says the company would very much prefer to have a voluntary agreement on recognition rather than a legislative framework. The steel industry has been successful in achieving such agreements over many years, he adds. Robert Winning, Shell UK's corporate personnel manager, believes that the new legislation 'is likely to lead to a new environment for employer/employee relations,' adding, however, that 'it is still too early to tell what the impact of these changes will be.' In the past, 'we have experienced barriers that might hinder our ability to respond and change quickly in an intensely competitive marketplace,' he continues. In any event, Shell UK does not believe that compulsory recognition will improve employee relations or the competitiveness of the business, he says.