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BTR leads British moves against works councils

Some of Britain's biggest conglomerates are secretly plotting to undermine the power of European works councils, a document leaked to the Inde- pendent reveals.

Directors at BTR have decided that a single council for the whole company would be "large, complex and irrelevant other than to some politically- motivated union groups". Under European law the council is designed to act as a forum for consulting and informing employees over strategy.

Minutes of a meeting held at Windsor disclose BTR management's belief that such a body would also be "difficult to manage and control and would be inviting groups together whom we would want to keep apart". The document says that information will be exchanged at a meeting with other like-minded organisations such as Hanson, Tomkins, American Brands and Cookson. Some of the companies are identified with the secretive European Works Council Study Group, which is made up largely of conglomerates keen to minimise the impact of the legislation.

At the BTR meeting, held on 14 November last year, directors opted for a "simple and minimalist" approach, with works councils established to cover "product groupings" on an individual site basis. The conglomerate is made up of five main commercial interests: industrial products, transport, construction, electrical systems and consumer products. The legal obligation to provide "transnational information" would be catered for by the attendance at the meetings once a year by a representative of the BTR parent group.

All companies with 1,000 employees in European Union countries, with 150 in each of two member states, must set up a works council. They are able to establish a structure on a voluntary basis until 22 September, after which it will be strictly circumscribed by a European directive. Britain's opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty does not exempt UK-based multinationals from the law, but allows companies to exclude UK workers. None has so far registered its intention to do so.

The TUC was dismayed by the contents of the BTR document. Nick Clark, the TUC's works council specialist, argued that many companies had been far more positive about the legislation in order to tailor the structure to accommodate both the needs of the business and the aspirations of the workforce.

He accused BTR and other conglomerates of operating "by stealth". He said: "The attitude seems to undermine the intention of the directive and subvert its spirit. What have they got to hide? What are they afraid their workers will find out?"