CBI agrees to union rights

Joint paper prepared with TUC accepts principle of recognition in the workplace
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The Independent Online
Business leaders and the TUC have drawn up a joint policy paper on trade union recognition in the workplace that could revolutionise industrial relations in Britain.

It accepts that unions should have rights to organise and bargain in factories, offices and elsewhere - a breakthrough in the long political war over rights at work that has bedevilled successive governments. But union hard-liners will be unhappy that anti-union employers want an opt- out on collective bargaining - and there will not be tough sanctions against rogue bosses.

The package deal on statutory trade union recognition, contained in a four-page document that will now be sent to the Prime Minister, was hammered out over several months of private meetings between the Confederation of British Industry and trade union leaders.

It acknowledges that areas of disagreement still exist but lays the voluntary groundwork for the Government's white paper on trade union law due in the New Year.

The "private and confidential paper", leaked to the Independent on Sunday, states: "The CBI and TUC are committed to achieving further improvements to Britain's employee relations. We believe that harmonious relations between employers and employees are best built on a relationship of mutual trust and respect. We welcome the Government's commitment to promoting partnership at work.

"We have been discussing the Government's proposal for statutory trade union recognition where there is majority support among the relevant workforce. These discussions have been aimed at identifying areas of agreement and understanding those of disagreement.

"Our objective is to improve industrial relations and to avoid unnecessary conflict. Employers and trade unions both have an interest in ensuring that any new legislation in this area is clear and workable."

Sanctions against recalcitrant employers are the greatest sticking point between the two sides of industry. The agreement states that where a recognition award is made "then there is an expectation that bargaining will take place". Both the TUC and the CBI agree that "there will need to be remedies available to a union where the employer has not complied with the award". But even the unions accept that there will not be "punitive sanctions" for non-compliance. The TUC merely says that workers who are denied the right to have a union to negotiate on their behalf should have an "effective remedy" - possibly involving the Central Arbitration Committee.

Labour's election manifesto promised that for the first time unions would have a statutory right to be recognised by employers if more than half the relevant workforce is in favour. However, Tony Blair is keen to establish common ground for the reform in industry and commerce before the legislation is introduced, so that it will endure. The unprecedented TUC/CBI joint policy paper will contribute to that campaign.

However, the employers have not given as much as the unions hoped. The document says that the CBI "remains unconvinced that collective bargaining is practicable when one partner is unwilling". This reservation - already dubbed the "It Takes Two to Tango" rule - has attracted heavy criticism from some union chiefs in private.

The CBI says that agreement on trade union recognition should be voluntary "wherever possible" and, where contested, bids for recognition should be accompanied by a demonstration of support from 30 per cent of the employees to whom the claim relates.

The TUC demurs from this view, chiefly over definitions of what is the bargaining unit.