Social partners deadlocked over union recognition

In February 1998, the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry appear deadlocked over trade union recognition rules.

In December 1997, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) agreed a joint statement identifying the key areas of agreement and disagreement between them on the statutory trade union recognition rules that the Government is committed to introducing (UK9801194F). However, February 1998 saw a full-scale disagreement break out between the social partners over how the Labour Party's pre-election manifesto commitment to legislate on recognition should be interpreted (UK9704125F). The argument centres around the wording in the manifesto, which states that unions should be recognised "where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them".

The Government had hoped that the TUC and CBI would come to a voluntary agreement, but officials now concede that this is almost impossible. The TUC says that the manifesto wording means that unions should win recognition where the move is backed by 50% of those who vote in a ballot, while the CBI states that it means that recognition must be backed by 50% of the workforce, irrespective of how many of them vote.

Amidst rumours that the Government may favour the CBI's interpretation, trade union leaders began appealing directly to MPs and ministers against what they see as a "betrayal of a manifesto promise". The TUC also claims that the CBI is being "deliberately obstructive", arguing that, when the previous Conservative Government suggested similar whole-workforce voting requirements for employee support in respect of strike decisions, the CBI "rightly" opposed it.

Four Labour MPs representing an 80-strong group of backbenchers with union links met with Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, to press the unions' case. Ms Beckett emphasised that no decision has been made as yet, but the cabinet is believed by some to be split. According to media reports, Ms Beckett and Ian McCartney (Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry) are thought to support the TUC position, but Prime Minister Tony Blair is thought to favour the CBI position.

Labour Party officials said that the Government was considering a compromise as a last resort. This would mean setting a threshold for participation in a ballot, below which it would be declared invalid. Some suggest that this threshold could be as high as 80% or 90% of the workforce, which would probably be unacceptable to the unions.

The TUC has launched a national advertising campaign to put pressure on the Government to - as the unions see it - honour its manifesto pledges. The campaign will target Labour MPs and opinion formers. The CBI in turn is mobilising to oppose any decision by the Government to adopt the unions' position. The CBI has created a working party made of leading companies and industry federations, including some employers who have derecognised all or some of their trade unions in recent years, such as News International, Associated British Ports, Midland Bank and BT.

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