Differences over partnership widen

A speech given in June 1999 by the president of the UK's CBI employers' confederation questioned the role of trade unions in "partnership" arrangements, prompting criticism from a number of union leaders.

The president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Sir Clive Thompson, has sparked controversy by warning that the much-discussed concept of partnership may be hiding a "damaging build-up of trade union influence". His remarks, made in a speech to an audience of employers on 23 June 1999, have been strongly criticised by union leaders and have highlighted the diverging interpretations placed on the idea of partnership by different groups of practitioners and policymakers. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been actively promoting the concept of union-based partnership at work, but the government and employers' organisations are unwilling to accept that partnership arrangements necessarily require union involvement (UK9906108F).

The CBI president argued that good workplace relations were achievable without trade unions. He said: "I believe strongly in partnership between a company and its employees, but I fail to see that a union is necessary to make it work. We mustn't fall into the trap of thinking partnership must mean unions. Of course it can and sometimes does, but what's right for one company is by no means right for all." Sir Clive added: "By all means let's have partnerships - partnerships that really are between employers and employees. Let's have union involvement, but only where companies believe [this] can genuinely add value."

The general secretary of the TUC, John Monks, condemned Sir Clive's remarks as "backward looking". Mr Monks said that, for partnerships to be genuine and effective, employees had to have an independent voice. Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which has signed a number of partnership agreements in recent months, argued that the CBI president's comments would undermine cooperative union strategies, encourage shopfloor militancy and "a return to the days of industrial confrontation".

In the same speech, Sir Clive also expressed doubts about the legitimacy of Europe an-level talks between union and employer organisations, questioning whether the European Trade Union Confederation should speak for all employees when the majority are not union members.

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