Companies fear 'red' brigade revival as unions fight among themselves

With internecine squabbles blamed for prolonging the BA dispute, Clayton Hirst asks if shop-floor strife is on the rise
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The Independent Online

Match the name to the quote. First we have John Cridland, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, batting for the interests of big companies. Second there is a senior trade union official, who asks to remain anonymous. He has fought a crop of high-profile industrial battles.

Both men are commenting on the union dispute with British Airways, over the introduction of swipe cards for check-in staff, which ended last week. So who said what?

"The unions were manoeuvring and jostling for position, each trying to poach members. BA was caught in the crossfire."

"The unions were flexing their muscles and business was caught in the middle."

The answer to this puzzle can be found at the end of the article, but the exercise demonstrates that the dispute has created unlikely allies. Big business and more moderate union figures are worried by the fierce inter-union rivalry witnessed during the BA negotiations. They believe it is bad news for business and for the union movement.

The three unions representing BA's check-in staff refuse to talk openly about what went on behind closed doors. But there is little doubt that the entrenched positions taken by the GMB, the Transport & General Workers' Unions (T&G) and, to a lesser extent Amicus helped to drag out the dispute which cost BA £30m to £40m.

There is a suspicion that as well as fighting for workers' interests, the unions had another agenda - to poach members. "There is a danger that some unions are taking the free market economy a little too seriously by establishing competing brands," says one senior official.

Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors, lays much of the blame at the door of the GMB, which took the most strident position during the BA dispute. "The T&G accepted the swipe cards, Amicus seemed relatively relaxed, but our good friend Kevin Curran [general secretary of the GMB] was extremely disrupting. The GMB is tending to be particularly militant, especially with the current incumbent at the helm. I heard him on the radio the other day and it took me back to the Seventies; 'Red Robbo' revisited. Surely the unions can't have such short memories?"

With a new breed of general secretaries running the unions, there are worries that more disputes could rise. Tony Woodley, the incoming general secretary of the T&G (who came to prominence as the successor of Red Robbo, Derek Robinson, at what became Rover Group), is expected to be especially aggressive. The hyperactive man from the Wirral has made it clear that his style will be very different from the current, quietly-spoken boss, Sir Bill Morris.

Some industries are relatively safe from being dragged into inter-union disputes. BT, for example, is represented by just two trade unions: the powerful Communication Workers Union (CWU) and the smaller Connect union. Twenty years ago BT had to deal with 15 unions. While the CWU is currently running a campaign against BT's decision to outsource jobs to India, relations between the two are generally good.

On the other hand, the CBI's Mr Cridland warns that privatised utilities, the railways, the car industry and traditional manufacturing could be affected by future inter-union disputes. Younger businesses, such as call centre operations, may also be hit. Unions see this sector as a fertile recruiting ground for new members. As a result, workers are represented by many different bodies.

Following the BA dispute, there have been calls for the Trades Union Congress to take a stronger role in preventing union squabbles. The arrival of the head of the TUC, Brendan Barber, at the BA negotiating table was seen as pivotal in getting the dispute resolved. But the TUC is not prepared to take wider action to stop disputes and has ruled out debating the subject at its annual congress in September. "We do not want to air the small bit of dirty linen we have in public," says a source close to the TUC.

Further consolidation of the unions would reduce the potential for conflict. The Amalgamated Engineering & Electrical Union and the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union have already merged to form Amicus. Last year the T&G held exploratory talks with the Graphical Paper & Media Union, and there is speculation that the CWU will one day find a partner.

More immediately, the CBI's Mr Cridland believes there are steps that unions can take to stop squabbles before they start: "Companies always prefer single- table bargaining, where the shop stewards agree the position in advance before they sit down with management."

The two unions that represent staff at National Air Traffic Control Services (Nats) have adopted such an approach. In September, Prospect and the Public & Commercial Services Union will start pay bargaining with management. Nats is under pressure to reduce costs and wants to link pay rises to productivity. The unions argue that their members have already delivered improvements. Critically, there will be separate negotiations for the controllers, mainly represented by Prospect. But David Luxton, the union's national secretary, says: "There is potential for conflict, but both unions have agreed to keep a common front on this."

Mr Luxton adds that the union squabbling during the BA talks was "a very poor advert for the trade union movement". His view reflects a wider concern that unions cannot afford to engage in high-profile disputes with each other. During the 1970s, when union conflict was rife, membership was high. Today, however, only 30 per cent of workers are union members, with just 19 per cent in the private sector. There is a danger that union disputes could scare off potential new recruits - especially younger workers - from joining the movement.

Ms Lea at the Institute of Directors says: "Take a young guy in his early 20s, going for his first job. He'd have seen how the unions behaved at BA and will think twice. He wouldn't want to join up to be put out on his backside."

If Ms Lea is right then the rows during the BA dispute have resulted in the exact opposite of what the unions were fighting for. Instead of winning more members, some workers may stay away from the unions all together.

However, at least the dispute has helped to unite the views of some businesses and union officials - which takes us back to the question set at the beginning of this article.

"The unions were flexing their muscles and business was caught in the middle," belongs to Mr Cridland. "The unions were manoeuvring and jostling for position, each trying to poach members. BA was caught in the crossfire," belongs to the union official. But it could easily have been the other way round.

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