Many firms are fighting to avoid recognition despite new laws

You don't get me, I'm part of the union - 'til the day I die." So sang the Strawbs in 1973, the year that unions were responsible for the miners' strike and the start of the three-day week. Today, the industrial landscape has changed beyond recognition.

You don't get me, I'm part of the union - 'til the day I die." So sang the Strawbs in 1973, the year that unions were responsible for the miners' strike and the start of the three-day week. Today, the industrial landscape has changed beyond recognition.

In the mid-1980s media tycoon Rupert Murdoch inflicted a near-mortal blow when he moved News International to the new, computerised premises at Wapping, a move followed by violent picketing and protests. And with a hostile Tory government in place, the unions continued to suffer.

This year, however, under Labour, things appear to be looking up for unions. The parts of the Employment Relations Act 1999 about statutory recognition of trade unions - they came into effect in June - have led to numerous requests from unions for recognition by employers. A re- vamped Central Arbitration Committee is in place to mediate if the two parties can't agree, and to decide whether a union should be recognised.

Anne Mitchell, spokesperson for Unison, says unions are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. "They protect pay and conditions and help employees if they are put under too much stress at work. Unison alone has won £38m in personal injury claims on behalf of its members," she says.

Unions are working hard to attract members, with press and TV advertising and incentives such as health insurance, financial services, even assertiveness courses. The latest TUC trend report, using figures from the Government's Labour Force survey, estimates that membership was up 100,000 in the year to autumn 1999 to almost seven million - the first rise in two decades. In particular, unions are targeting the hi-tech call centres, many of which are notorious for having bad working conditions.

Some employers, however, are doing their best to stay union-free. Jeremy Dear of the NUJ says most employers are willing to talk to the unions, but there are cases in which individuals were told their career was in jeopardy if they supported a union.

Some firms are circulating leaflets to staff with catchlines such as: "Don't turn back the clock", or "You don't need a union to have a voice". One pamphlet tells employees that if they join up they could be "punished by the union for disobeying their orders". Another says legal advice and support will be provided by an independent legal service as a company benefit.

But it seems UK firms are unsure how to deal with the new legislation. PTI Labor Research - a Texas law firm that represents employers in the US, where the situation is more antagonistic and firms hire lawyers to advise on how to keep unions out of their companies - is to open an office in London in direct response to the Act, after requests by UK firms for specialist advice. Mildred Blowen, a partner in PTI, says that, if a ballot for recognition is on the cards, "PTI will help employers put a case to employees for not joining a union. If a firm wants to recognise a union, PTI will advise it on its options."

If employers are changing with the times, so too are unions. Leslie Manasseh, director of organisation at Connect, the telecoms white-collar union, says: "We have gone though a process of change to enable us to recruit professionals. People's needs are now more about career development and training."

Mike Emmott, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, says that change extends to the role of the union rep. Research last year showed that most of their time is spent dealing with individual complaints rather than in collective bargaining.

London Electricity's customer service centre is union-free and operates employee business forums where any differences are worked out. Alex Parsons, press and issues manager, says face-to-face contact works better without the unions.

Yvonne Bennion of the Industrial Society says: "There are companies with good terms and conditions that have good relations with employees." But people will say things through their representatives which they often don't say directly, particularly when they feel threatened by what is going on. You can function perfectly well without union representation, but the collective viewpoint is a force for good."

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