Sunday, April 12, 2015
Statutory recognition, the fragmented workforce and UNISON's future
One of UNISON’s central priorities at the moment is to organise the increasingly fragmented public service workforce. This entails seeking to organise the employees of a diverse range of private companies, some contracting directly with public sector bodies, and some receiving public money to deliver services without such a direct contractual relationship.
This brings us up against the flawed statutory recognition process introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999 (which provided some of the misplaced optimism behind John Monks’ “Millennium Challenge”).
Sian Moore, of the University of the West of England, analysing the limited and declining reach of statutory recognition over its first ten years concluded as follows;
“The central trend has been the decline in applications and this may result from the operation of the procedure which has been to discourage unions from making applications, but it also reflects the capacity of the unions to organise. The operation, but more importantly the design, of the procedure places few restrictions on employer advantage in the workplace, whilst an examination of union strategies suggests their limited capacity to generate new recognition claims. Both are a function of the wider landscape of work and employment relations and its political and legal context. This interaction suggests it is unlikely that CAC applications will increase substantially in the future.”
This downbeat assessment of the utility of statutory recognition procedures for union organising chimes with practical experience on the ground. However, for a UNISON activist there is another dimension worthy of comment.
From the inception of statutory recognition in 2000 until the end of 2013 there were 861applications to the Central Arbitration Committee from UK trade unions for statutory recognition by an employer. UNISON made just 19 of these applications. The list of more recent applications discloses no further UNISON applications. Since the coming into force of the relevant provision of the Employment Relations Act 1999, UNISON has been responsible for only about 2% of all statutory recognition requests.
The thorough analysis by Moore and her colleagues leads to the conclusion that statutory recognition procedures are of limited efficacy and are being used less and less, and also suggests that one of the positive features of the existence of the statutory recognition procedures may be their “shadow effect” of encouraging voluntary recognition (about which there is, however, little data). Voluntary recognition is always going to be a better option to establish an ongoing relationship with an employer (which is essential for meaningful collective bargaining) and so the fact that we are now prioritising private sector organising shouldn’t necessarily be expected to lead to a sudden rash of statutory recognition applications.
But if we don’t rise above 2% of all applications being made by UNISON then it will be difficult to take seriously our protestations about priorities.
The inherent caution of UNISON officialdom, in which the consent of various parties is needed for anything to be done, whilst the objection of only one can lead to inaction, breeds a culture which is not so much risk-averse as risk-paranoid. This will need to change if we are to rise to the challenge of organising the fragmented workforce.