FirstGroup to stamp out US union bashing

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The Independent Online

The head of Britain's biggest transport company promised yesterday to "stamp out anti-union behaviour" by senior managers at a key US subsidiary amid unrest among the organisation's shareholders.

Martin Gilbert, the chairman of FirstGroup, told the company's annual meeting the organisation was taking the issue "very seriously" after a number of institutional shareholders voted for a "human rights" motion in defiance of the board's wishes.

FirstStudent, which operates more than 20,000 yellow school buses in the US, has been accused of harassing and intimidating union activists.

While shareholders with 78.72 per cent of the company's equity voted against the motion, some 6.02 per cent backed it and 15.62 per cent abstained.

Union leaders argued it was "highly unusual" for institutions to fail to support a company under such circumstances. The pension funds of the TUC and universities, together with the Co-operative Insurance Society, voted for the motion. It is understood that one of the big financial institutions to abstain was Aberdeen Asset Management, whose chief executive is Mr Gilbert.

John Lyons, a former Labour MP and ex-union official, who acted as a consultant to FirstGroup, told the meeting the company's managers in Baltimore had used anti-union material last month during a secret ballot on union recognition.

Mr Gilbert told the AGM in Aberdeen the group would "do everything in its power" to ensure the company was neutral on the issue of employee representation. The group launched an investigation into the allegations of anti-union behaviour and will report back to shareholders in the autumn.

Outside the meeting, members of the Transport & General Workers' Union handed out copies of a report on FirstStudent's labour relations policies written by Lance Compa, a professor of international labour and human rights law at Cornell University in New York. Professor Compa concluded that FirstStudent violated international human rights standards on workers' freedom of association.

Tommy Campbell, a regional organiser for the T&G in Aberdeen, accused Mr Gilbert of trying to stifle debate on the issue at yesterday's meeting.

A spokesman for First said the group was not anti-union and "never had been". The board believed its present code of ethics covered the points made in the motion which called for the company to abide by standards laid down by the UN's International Labour Organisation. However, directors would consider whether policies should be brought more in line with ILO principles.

The group would ensure there were formal training programmes in place for US managers to ensure they abided by group policies.