Increase in demand for collective dispute resolution

Against a background of continued economic uncertainty, the number of collective employment disputes referred to the UK's Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service increased by 15% between 2009–2010 and 2010–2011. The most common causes of the referred disputes were issues such as bonuses, job evaluation, grading, pensions and leave, with pensions in particular being highlighted. Other issues concerned general pay claims, redundancy and trade union recognition.

Role of Acas

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is an independent statutory body that, among other work aimed at improving employment relations, offers dispute-resolution services in individual (UK0910039Q) and collective employment disputes (essentially those between employers and trade unions).

The use of Acas’s statutory collective dispute-resolution services is voluntary, and subject to agreement by the parties to a dispute.

Acas offers collective conciliation when talks break down, at the request of the parties or at its own initiative. Conciliation involves identifying issues, seeking common ground, holding separate and joint meetings with the parties, and helping to repair relationships. Acas conciliators help to find ways of reaching agreement but have no powers to decide on a settlement or to make formal recommendations.

The parties to a dispute can also use Acas’s collective arbitration services – this can be laid down in the parties’ negotiating procedures or be agreed on an ad hoc basis, for example, following the failure of conciliation. The parties agree in advance to be bound by the decision of an Acas arbitrator, made after the parties have presented their cases at a hearing. The arbitrator’s decision is not legally binding.

Acas offers collective mediation where conciliation has failed and the parties do not want to use arbitration. The process is similar to collective arbitration, except that the mediator plays a more active role in finding solutions and makes recommendations rather than a decision. These recommendations are not binding, but the parties are expected to consider them seriously as a basis for resolving the dispute.

Dispute resolution 2010-11

Acas, in its 2010–2011 annual report (721Kb PDF) published on 28 July 2011, states that from 1 April 2010 to 31 March 2011 it received 1,054 requests for collective conciliation, an increase of 15.2% on the same period in 2009–2010 when 915 requests were received. The 2008–2009 figure was 966.

The most common cause of the disputes referred was ‘other pay/conditions of employment’, which was a cause of 32.4% of disputes (28.2% in 2009–2010). The annual report defines this category as including issues such as bonuses, job evaluation, grading, pensions and leave. Acas notes that disputes concerning pensions in particular became more frequent in 2010–2011 (as at the British Broadcasting Corporation – see below). Other common causes of disputes in 2010–2011 were: general pay claims – 17.5% of cases (17.6% in 2009–2010); redundancy – 12.3% (12% in 2009–2010); and trade union recognition – 10.6% (13.8% in 2009–2010).

Acas reports that it was involved in all large-scale disputes that occurred in 2010–2011. It was able to resolve matters or help the parties move towards a resolution in 91% of all conciliation cases (94% in the previous year).

Successful cases

The following are some high-profile examples of successful Acas intervention in 2010–2011.

  • Management at airport operator BAA and unions met with Acas conciliators and were helped to reach a pay deal, after strike action was threatened at the height of the holiday season in August 2010. The unions recommended acceptance and industrial action was called off.
  • Negotiations to end a complicated long-running dispute between British Airways and the Unite union (UK1006029I) restarted, with Acas hosting initial talks. The parties then held direct negotiations and agreement was finally reached in May 2011. Acas plays a continuing role in resolving some issues arising from the dispute.
  • Acas brokered a settlement at American Airlines in a dispute involving employees based at UK airports. In a complex conciliation over pay and benefits, both sides ‘made constructive moves which led to a mutually acceptable solution’.
  • At the BBC, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) organised a strike in November 2010 over pensions issues including a proposed increase in employee contributions and the introduction of a career-average scheme. Following meetings at Acas, an agreement was reached (UK1101039I) which NUJ representatives endorsed, in principle, to their members.

A total of 31 cases were referred to collective arbitration and mediation in 2010–2011. This was around the same level as in 2008–2009, following a rise to 44 cases in 2009–2010. Following the trend of recent years, most cases in 2010–2011 involved dismissal and discipline (35%) or annual pay rises (26%).

Ongoing tensions

Pointing to high-profile disputes such as those at British Airways, BAA and the BBC, Acas Chair, Ed Sweeney, said: ‘Despite the modest upswing in the economy since the height of the recession, tensions in the workplace have by no means disappeared.’ He added that ‘Acas has been working hard to resolve such disputes wherever we can’ and that ‘it is encouraging to see employers and trade unions willing to get round the negotiating table to reach agreement’.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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