Social partnership trial ends in failure

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The Independent Online
Ministers are facing considerable difficulties in their attempts to involve unions and employers in policy-making. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, looks at disagreements over a law on union recognition and the flagship New Deal programme for the unemployed.

The Government's first experiment in Continental-style "social partnership" between capital and labour ended in failure yesterday on the issue of union recognition.

Union leaders and the Confederation of British Industry conspicuously failed to reach a consensus on how a law enforcing employment representation at work might be drawn up.

Ministers' relationship with unions also came under strain over the Government's New Deal for the unemployed which came under fire from workers' leaders for introducing benefit penalties for those who refused to participate in programmes.

On union recognition, the TUC and CBI struck deals on points of little contention, but there was no agreement on the most critical elements.

John Cridland, of the CBI, urged the Prime Minister to think again over the intended legislation, declaring that legally-backed recognition would not work.

John Monks, the TUC's general secretary, described as "ridiculous" some of the positions taken up by employers' leaders.

In particular the two sides failed to agree on what constituted a "majority" when voters were deciding on recognition. Labour's election manifesto stated that unions should be recognised where a majority of workers voted for it.

The TUC contends that it should be a majority of those voting, while Adair Turner, director-general of the CBI, argues that it should be a majority of all those eligible to vote. While the CBI believes that such a test was needed to prove the case, Mr Monks pointed out that few governments enjoyed such a degree of endorsement from the electorate.

"If 60 per cent vote for union recognition in an 80 per cent turnout, that should figure recognition. If it failed to do so, it would lead to desperately bad industrial relations and a recipe for conflict," he said.

And in a Continental-style attempt at social partnership the TUC and CBI were to develop a joint paper on the issue, but they have failed to do so. Mr Monks and Mr Turner will today present their submissions to Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade.

Another point at issue is employers' insistence that there should be 30 per cent support from the relevant employees before a ballot on recognition was triggered. Mr Monks said, however, that such a mechanism begged the question of what was the "relevant bargaining unit".

Other conflicts emerged over the CBI's insistence that small business should not be involved; that pay, hours and holidays should be subject to negotiation, but not training and there should be a ban on industrial action in support of recognition.