Firms get progress on union rights

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AFTER MONTHS of wrangling, the Government yesterday published critical elements of its plans for compulsory union recognition, which take on board many employers' criticisms of the "Fairness at Work" white paper published earlier this year.

The full proposals for employment rights, to be published next month, have formed one of the main ideological battle grounds between Old and New Labour. Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said the detailed proposals showed the Government was fully committed to principles set out in the White Paper. But his department had listened to concerns to produce "sensible, balanced" legislation.

Adair Turner, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, acknowledged there had been "improvements" in the plans.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said that while the proposals constituted an "historic" breakthrough for unions, the Government had introduced complexities which could lead to prolonged litigation.

Ken Jackson, the general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said the Bill would be a "major step forward", but that Britain's "worst employers" would be able to scupper genuine cases for automatic recognition.

Mr Mandelson has adhered to a promise that recognition should be automatic where half a workforce are union members, but with provisos.

While he rejected CBI suggestions that employees would have to be members for up to 12 months before counting towards recognition, he has given important powers of discretion to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), which will act as an adjudicator.

While there will be a presumption that 50-per-cent membership should lead to recognition, employers can appeal if they believe it would impair "sustainable and good" industrial relations or if they thought union members did not necessarily support collective bargaining.

The Trade Secretary would also have the right to "issue guidance" to the CAC. He also decided individual representation should only be allowed where grievance procedures involved "statutory, contractual or common- law rights".

Instead of abolishing the upper limit on compensation for unfair dismissal, he has decided to increase it from pounds 12,000 to pounds 50,000. Rupert Murdoch's plans to create an in-house staff association at his Wapping plant would fall foul of the new laws, aimed at ensuring the independence of employees' organisations.

However, any attempt to win collective bargaining rights at Marks & Spencer stores, another key target for the labour movement, were undermined by a stipulation that unions would need 10-per-cent membership before they would be able to trigger a ballot on recognition. Unions acknowledge privately they have minimal membership at M&S shops.