M&S challenged over 'crony-packed' works council

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The Independent Online
Marks & Spencer's image as one of Britain's most enlightened employers faces a serious legal challenge because of its alleged refusal to allow independent representation for its workers. The stores group is under threat of court action for failing to establish a freely-elected works council under European law.

Unions in Britain, Ireland, France and Belgium accuse the high street giant of packing a "quisling" works council with "hand-picked cronies". Unless M&S allows union involvement in the establishment of a fresh consultative framework by 22 September, court proceedings will follow on the Continent.

Despite the Government's opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, Marks & Spencer, along with other British-based multinationals of similar size, must set up a freely elected works council to consult employees and inform them about important business decisions. The opt- out allows them to exclude British workers, but no organisation has so far chosen to do so.

Companies can set up a voluntary system until 22 September, but after that date a European directive allows employees to object where they believe it is unrepresentative. If the courts accept union contentions over Marks & Spencer's policy, a statutory Special Negotiating Body has to be established that would draw up a new council structure with the help of unions.

The case for union involvement on the Continent appears stronger than in Britain. Marks recognises unions for collective bargaining in mainland Europe, but not in this country.

Tom Hayes, an Irish specialist on works councils who is close to the unions involved, says that litigation may not end with the establishment of the formal negotiating group. Irish and continental unions are determined to object to any body which would force them to sit alongside non-union representatives, he says. They are expected to insist on the involvement of Usdaw, the British shopworkers' union.

Bill Connor, deputy general secretary of Usdaw, conceded that his union only had a "tiny" membership at Marks in Britain. He alleged that Usdaw members had been forced to leave the union by intimidatory management tactics. He pointed out, however, that Labour is committed to introduce legislation to force union recognition where employees wanted it.

Mr Connor said: "The problem for individual employee representatives on works councils as opposed to union members, is that they will not have the back-up to argue a detailed case. They will also be too frightened to say boo to a goose. It looks like being a farce. They would simply be quisling bodies made up of hand-picked cronies."

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said management at Marks had set up the elections to its works council without any union participation so the company could not argue that representatives were freely elected.

Brian Hudspith of Marks & Spencer said the company decided to establish a works council in March last year as a positive approach to include all staff in the European Community in the future direction of the business. He said that article 13 of the directive concerned, which covers the voluntary establishment of works councils, did not impose any structure or procedure and Marks therefore followed election methods in each country which reflected the law or established practice.

"Staff elected to the council who are union members have the opportunity to seek advice through their union, thereby continuing the positive role that it can play in helping to ensure the success of the council."

The company has denied using intimidation to dissuade employees in Britain from union membership.