Employment Relations Act Come into Force
Today, the provisions of the Employment Relations Act
1999 come into force. This Act deals with statutory trade union recognition. In
27,000 words and 172 new paragraphs inserted into the Trade Union and Labour
Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, provisions have been put in place as to how
workers who wish to have a union recognised by their employer for collective
bargaining purposes should proceed.
A request for recognition must be in writing, identifying
the union making the request and referring to the new legislation. It must also
specify a "bargaining unit". Identifying this unit and determining
its appropriateness will be crucial, given the definition of what constitutes
sufficient numbers of workers in favour for the application to succeed. Once a
request is received the parties then have ten working days to reach agreement.
If agreement is reached no further steps are necessary. If the employer
indicates a willingness to negotiate, then it gets another 20 days in which to
do so. A continued failure to reach agreement will bring the Central
Arbitration Committee (CAC) into play.
The CAC opens its doors, as it were, today. Its initial
role in disputes will be to determine the bargaining unit and decide whether
the union has the support of a majority of workers in that unit. They will not
be involved unless it can be shown that members of the union make up at least
10% of the unit and the union has majority support within it. Majority support
means to demonstrate that they would be likely to win in a ballot (e.g. through
a petition). If a clear majority is not obvious, a secret ballot will follow.
The cost is to be split between the employer and the union. The union needs to
achieve a majority in the ballot, that is 50% plus 1 member, and, importantly,
to show that those workers giving a "yes" vote constitute at least
40% of the total number within the unit. The newly formed CAC will assess
whether or not a union passes either of these tests. If the bid fails it cannot
be repeated in the same form within three years.
Recognition will lead to collective bargaining, which will
need defining by written agreement primarily in relation to pay, hours and
holidays, There are also obligations to meet the union and consult on policies
and future proposals for training workers within the bargaining unit. There are
sanctions against employers who attempt to victimise workers for the act of
TUC General Secretary John Monks said of the provisions:
"The main effect of the new law is to encourage more voluntary deals. Only
a small minority of employers are now hostile to unions in principle, most
recognise that modern unions want partnership, not needless conflict. But this
law is needed to deal with those employers stuck in the 1980s or trying to
bring US-style union busting to Britain."
The new chairman of the CAC, Sir Michael Burton, said that
he accepts that there are a number of hurdles for unions to jump, but
emphasises that the role of the CAC is to encourage agreement. It is,
therefore, in the interests of unions to reach agreement in order to avoid the
potential pitfalls of the legislation. For instance, although the CAC may
decide that the union has sufficient support for its application, it may not
agree with the unions proposed bargaining unit.
It is reported that there has been an increase in voluntary
deals being signed between unions and employers since the legislation was
proposed. Commentators have pointed out that this could be because some
employers want to end up with a union of their choice, not one that has been
imposed on them under the legislation. Others are reaching agreements because
they do not want to be dragged into a statutory process that is both
complicated and long-winded.