· 7 min read · News

The deal's off


Union militancy is increasing and partnership deals with employers are coming under scrutiny. Stefan Stern reports

If you predict something often enough, eventually it may come true. Every September in the mid-to-late 1990s, in the week before the TUC conference, a certain legal firm would issue a press release predicting that this year would surely see the return of another winter of discontent, like the one experienced in 1978/79.

It never came true though journalists were always grateful for an apparently juicy story with which to launch congress week. But now, just when the same legal firm seems finally to have stopped issuing its annual press release, many observers are suggesting that the much-repeated prediction of industrial unrest may finally be about to happen.

Critics look at the fire service, the train operating companies and London Underground, Royal Mail, the health service and certain parts of manufacturing industry and predict imminent outbreaks of union militancy, the likes of which we havent seen for nearly 20 years. If the rhetoric of some trade union leaders is to be believed, we are in for interesting times. HR managers and employee representatives will have to keep a calm eye on the situation if good workplace relations are to be maintained.

The evidence for renewed militancy is certainly convincing. A tight labour market has put employees in a stronger position than before. Several years of uninterrupted economic growth followed by a large boost in public spending have reinforced the unions in their public-sector strongholds. There are half a million more public servants today than there were in 1997 and wages in the public sector have increased faster than in the private sector for the first time in a generation.

As TUC general secretary John Monks told Human Resources, Workers are feeling more confident, more assertive and less ready to turn the other cheek. We forecast that this would be the case, that unions werent finished. You couldnt write off the trade union movement, as some of the Tories and one or two even in New Labour wanted to do. You cant compare the conditions of mass unemployment with the conditions weve got today.

He adds, One of my points to colleagues in the union movement is that the employment laws are important, but the level of employment is the crucial thing about union power. No law can stand against labour shortages and workers asserting themselves.

The political context for industrial relations has changed as well. Five and half years into the lifetime of a Labour Government, with certain limited employment law reforms passed, trade unions sense that this is their chance to adopt a more robust tone with employers. The signing of the Social Chapter, the granting of the right to trade union recognition (500 new agreements were drawn up in 2001 alone), and now the phasing in of the European directive on information and consultation rights, all make the workplace seem a more democratic and negotiable place from the trade unions point of view.

Well, winter is now upon us, and there are signs, if not of widespread discontent, then certainly of distinctly edgy rumblings. And, giving voice to that disquiet, a new cast of trade union general secretaries has burst on to our televisions screens. There is the fluent and highly intelligent Billy Hayes at the Communication Workers Union (CWU), constantly wrestling with some of the worst workplace relations the country. There is Bob Crow of the RMT, apparently able to bring London Underground to a halt as and when he pleases; and then there is the dark horse from Sheffield, Derek Simpson, who unexpectedly beat Tony Blairs favourite trade union leader, Sir Ken Jackson, in the fight to be general secretary of Amicus, the union formed by the merging of the MSF and the AEEU.

It is Simpsons election that is the most significant. He announced his arrival on the national stage with one or two extremely colourful interviews and press conferences. And, crucially, he re-ignited the whole debate on partnership.

Partnership has been a euphemism for the exploitation of many of our members over the past 20 years, Simpson said at the time. In his sights in particular are the so-called sweetheart deals. These have been formed and Jackson, Simpsons predecessor, was regarded by some people in the trade union movement as the sweetheart-dealer in chief when trade unions take part in beauty parades with employers, offering them concessions for the right to be the sole or principal recognised union representing members in an enterprise. Other critics, like John Kelly of the LSE, have shown research that seems to suggest employees in partnership firms are sometimes more likely to face large-scale redundancies, albeit on an agreed basis.

In the worst cases, certain rights that were seen as sacred by many trade unionists seemed to be negotiated (or given) away: no right to negotiate on pay and conditions, no time off for trade union duties, and no strike agreements.

Most of the deals that our members have complained about were struck when the trade union movement was in retreat, Simpson said. They have no place in the modern world of work. We will tear up any agreements with an employer where the members feel it does not serve their best interests.

At first hearing this sounded like industrial dynamite. Partnership deals to be torn up? Which ones surely not all of them? And this was the new leader of the former AEEU speaking the union that, for example, at Nissan in the north east of England, had taken part in a radical re-invention of the British motor industry, rewriting the rules on flexibility, partnership and new ways of working. Was the great industrial peace of the 80s and 90s over, and were we going back to war?

On closer examination, Simpsons words were perhaps not quite so threatening. The Amicus leader attempted to clarify his views a few weeks after his initial pronouncements. He cited his unions partnership agreement with Legal and General as exactly the sort of meaningful, effective partnership he wanted to promote a non-adversarial relationship based on mutual respect and trust. It is this kind of partnership I want to see flourish, he said.

Monks has been arguing for meaningful partnership during most of his time at the head of the TUC. If you are always going to be an adversary, dont be surprised when others pick a fight, he warned the TUC conference in September. Partnership is still in its infancy, he explained. Weve never recognised more than about 60 companies in partnership agreements and there are some islands of partnership agreements in the desert of the public sector. Its been a small minority of Britains employers that have managed to comply with the TUCs six principles. [For the TUCs definition of partnership, visit its Partnership Institute website www.tuc.org.uk/pi.]

Were very proud of what they do, I just wish more companies would do it. I wish more employers would do it, and I wish the public sector would do it, Monks says. Weve got national partnership agreements following the Partnership Institute principles [in the public sector], but if you go into a benefit office or a hospital, people dont know what youre talking about. Its stuck at the top, it hasnt come down the line properly.

I like to think that partnership is important enough for there to be a reaction against it, Monks continues. Unfortunately most of the really good partnership agreements have been born out of adversity. A firm is on the blink, and everybody recognises that if they dont pull their socks up, get on a lot better together and work a lot more intelligently, perhaps harder, then they are going to go out of business and end up out of work.

Generating the same sense of common purpose and mutual respect and were all in it together proves harder when things are going reasonably well, but maybe not brilliantly. Partnership sounds cuddly and passive, but the partnerships that I respect are pretty robust, and bloody hard work, he says.

There will often be tough challenges, and rows, in any partnership agreement. It doesnt mean the end of a partnership, Monks explains, any more than a nasty row means the end of a marriage. It can often be a good basis for gluing the parties together.

Bill Connor, general secretary of shop-workers union Usdaw, agrees that there are tough moments. Partnership is actually much more difficult than adversarialism from the trade union point of view, he says. You become deeply involved in management decisions. Sometimes you are going to have to go back and explain why certain decisions are being taken, and its not easy. And this from the signatory to one of the most successful partnership deals of all, at Tesco.

Other experienced observers are not panicked by some of the rhetorical rumblings emerging from radical trade union leaders. Willy Coupar, director of the IPA (Involvement and Participation Association) has seen the demand for his organisations advisory services grow extremely fast in the past few years.

The unions that are now speaking out against partnerships have never been particularly pro-partnership, he says. There hasnt been a big conversion. And, in any case, I have personally never come across a so-called sweetheart deal. These are robust relationships where you can argue and disagree. That is built into the nature of partnership.

He should know what he is talking about. Coupar chairs the DTIs Partnership Fund panel, which allocates resources to organisations looking to establish genuine partnerships. Out of more than 1,000 applications for funding in recent years, the panel has granted money in 160 cases.

The further we go down the road of building an economy based on substantially enhanced organisational performance, with that being the only way we are going to survive economically as a nation, then the idea that we could revert to yah-boo industrial relations really doesnt stand up to five minutes scrutiny, Coupar says. And if it has taken several years to build a culture of partnership, you cant just dismantle that in a brief time by writing or saying something these things dont happen like that.

That said, a new tone is being set in workplaces around the country. There is a new assertiveness among trade union leaders. Pensions, once a forgotten or ignored issue, is right at the top of the negotiating agenda. And partnership can rapidly come under pressure on this issue, just when employers are looking to reduce their long-term exposure to potentially large pensions liabilities.

Managers will need to respond with care to this new mood. But this, too, is an opportunity to make partnership more robust and more successful. As Monks says, I would say the biggest opponents of partnership have been among employers, not unions. Ive been disappointed that more British managers did not enthusiastically grab the hand that reached out, from just about all unions actually, a few years ago. The attitude was, I dont need it, I dont want to have to tell anybody anything, I dont want our decisions slowed down. New rights on information and consultation will certainly test managers good faith in this area.

And Tony Blair, of course, is aware of the dangers of a return to industrial unrest. Partnership doesnt make the headlines, he told the TUC in September. But the vast majority of trade union leaders and members know that it does far more good than a lot of self-indulgent rhetoric from a few that belong in the history books.

As the political rhetoric is ratcheted up, the temptation to fall back into unthinking adversarialism will be great. There may be trouble ahead, but honest partners will just have to face the music, and dance.