A destructive weapon

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Something rotten is happening in Dundee. Yesterday 340 men and women spent their 90th day locked out of the city's Timex factory, in which they once worked. They are locked out because they went on strike in February, in protest at the dismissal of 120 of their number, only to be sacked en masse and see their jobs filled by a smaller 'replacement' workforce.

The significance of the 90 days is that Peter Hall, Timex's chief executive, can, if he wants, now re-employ the striking workers selectively without paying the rest for unfair dismissal.

He could in this way achieve his original goal, which was to cut the Dundee workforce by a half to counter falling demand.

But at what price? The Timex workforce, dispossessed of their jobs while in pursuit of lawful industrial action, are humiliated. But so are Mr Hall's wretched 'replacement' workers, who have spent the past three months enduring the screams of 'scab' as, heads lowered in shame and reproach, they are bussed in past the waiting pickets.

There have been scores of arrests as the police have fought to keep protesters and 'replacements' apart - yesterday there were another 38 as an attempt by 3,000 demonstrators to prevent the buses entering the factory ended in failure.

And finally, the Government's programme of employment legislation has embarrassingly been shown to be a brutal tool in the hands of a certain type of management. The 90- day rule that Timex is now entitled to exploit was enshrined in the 1982 Employment Act.

It is tempting to conclude from the events on Tayside these past three months either that 'macho management' is back in style or that the Government's industrial relations reforms have been a flop. What else are we to deduce if Thatcherism's long march against the might of the trade unions has failed to prevent scenes occurring in Dundee in 1993 that bear striking resemblance to those witnessed two decades ago outside the Grunwick film processing factory in north London?

Neither is the case. Notwithstanding the Wapping dispute in the mid- 1980s, when the management of News International used remarkably similar tactics to those now on show at Timex, employers have emphatically not used the powers handed to them by successive Conservative administrations to their full extent.

To have done so would have been to disrupt industrial relations in a fashion only ever glimpsed during the 'trench warfare' of the 1970s between employers and organised labour. Quite sensibly, the vast majority of managements refrained from exercising these powers and continue to do so. For reasons best known only to Timex, its management seemingly chose to sabotage negotiations with its workforce over the proposed job reductions by introducing a fresh series of demands, including a wage freeze and reduced pension entitlements, midway through the talks. Mr Hall remains, thankfully, in a minority.

With the exception of the strike ballots now being conducted among pilots and cabin crew at British Airways, the recent wave of industrial unrest has been inspired not by strong-arm management techniques but unpopular elements of government policy. The miners are protesting against pit closures, the railwaymen against privatisation and the teachers against compulsory testing, while the firemen are threatening to protest against the 1.5 per cent public sector pay ceiling.

Likewise, it is difficult to argue that the broad thrust of the Government's industrial relations legislation has failed. Many of the reforms embarked upon in the latter stages of Margaret Thatcher's premiership were undoubtedly deeply unpopular and some of her successor's remain likewise.

Trade union reform does not, however, fit that particular bill. The reforms that gave the unions back to their members through balloting were not only popular but have also been successful in economic terms. In 1979 there were more than 2,000 stoppages involving 4.6 million workers resulting in 29.5 million lost production days. Last year there were just 253 disputes resulting in 528,000 stoppage days involving fewer than 150,000 employees.

Now undoubtedly recession has played its part in deterring industrial action in the same way that it has driven down wage demands to the point where manufacturing productivity gains have been outstripping pay settlements for the past 12 months.

In the wrong hands, the employment laws built up over the past 13 years could be a destructive weapon. Indeed, there are some disquieting aspects of the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill currently going through Parliament. Even the Confederation of British Industry, though broadly supportive of the Bill, questions whether allowing any citizen the right to take legal action if he or she is the victim of unlawful industrial action will lead to unwarranted interference by politically motivated activists.

But it cannot be right to characterise the body of legislation as an incentive for brutal managements to conduct industrial relations through compunction.

Indeed the breeze of industrial unrest rustling through the public and private sectors may even be a sign that employees are getting their nerve back again after two years of being cowed by recession and the fear of losing their jobs. It might even be a leading indicator of recovery on the way.