Trade Union and Employment Forum

Whatever happened to collective bargaining?

It's changed, it's declined but it is certainly not dead. Those were the conclusions of an interesting debate at the H&P Trade Union Forum on 28 March at King’s College London. 

Melanie Simms, Professor of Work and Employment at Leicester University, set the scene and historical context by examining the trends which, since the 1960s, had seen the collapse of collective bargaining primarily in the private sector. She identified de-centralisation of bargaining, the introduction of single table bargaining (all categories of worker covered by the same negotiations) and the contractual scope (bargaining reduced mainly to pay) as the key issues which had driven the diminution of collective bargaining. Her analysis focussed as much on the changes in business and capital structure as any failings of the trade union movement. While trade union membership decline had been significant and the perceived effectiveness of trade unions was important, these factors had not been the only cause of the decline in collective bargaining. Melanie argued that the collective interests that drive collective bargaining have to be examined as to how they are formed and by whom. These, she asserted, are socially constructed, identified and given voice by individuals, trade unions or employers and change over time. She also highlighted changes in the labour market as another factor.

The decline was not limited to the private sector as changes in the structure of collective bargaining in the public sector had arisen through the introduction of pay review bodies, the scope of bargaining and contracting out of services, all of which introduced a less solid boundary than in the past which failed to include all workers and range of conditions. However, she emphasised that the changes in the private sector were far more profound.

As collective bargaining in the private sector shifted from the multi-employer national agreements of the 1960s into local company or unit bargaining, the shape of collective bargaining lost its formality and extent of detail. Increasing numbers of smaller employers and the introduction of single table bargaining brought a shift in the nature of collective interests. The scope of collective bargaining narrowed to an emphasis on pay and as bargaining transferred from the corporate centre to local factory units the common interests of management and unions to ensure sustainability led to factory being pitched against factory.

Melanie argued that the consequences of these changes, alongside changes in capital whereby the corporate financial centre became disconnected to local units of businesses saw local management lose the authority to reach agreements. What should trade unions do? Where should they target their bargaining? She suggested that the focus should be on ‘precarious workers’, such as agency workers and those on zero-hour contracts, and their interests. Melanie argued that all was not lost - there are examples of trade union initiatives in this area, although so far on a relatively small scale.

Following Melanie Simms, Ray Ellis, Assistant Secretary of the CWU, gave a fascinating insight into the background and conclusions of the new national agreement secured last year with Royal Mail.  Ray put the negotiations in the context of the threat of privatisation, the effectiveness of the trade union and the fears of individualisation and precarious work which the private sector were imposing in the industry. He told the Forum that Royal Mail members recognised that their terms and conditions were substantially better than many other general workers. It was their drive for decent work which led to the Agenda for Growth Agreement 2014, which is designed to promote industrial security and worker engagement. (Dr Jim Moher discusses the genesis and importance of this agreement here). 

Ray Ellis described the Agenda for Growth Agreement as recognising mutual interests but not a traditional partnership agreement. It delivered legally enforceable protection for conditions of service. The employer committed to no outsourcing of businesses if this meant employees would be subject to Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, whereby workers’ contract of employment transfers to another employer; it prevented the introduction of a two-tier workforce where new employees are engaged on less beneficial conditions; no zero-hour contracts; avoidance of compulsory redundancy; a maximum of 12 weeks for agency contracts and a culture of permanent employment. All of this was designed to change the culture of industrial relations at Royal Mail, shifting from an adversarial system to an agreement with a dispute resolution system that includes mediation as an option. But Ray emphasised this was not a no-strike agreement.

In addition, the agreement provided for joint training with managers and union representatives attending the same courses. The emphasis was about sharing business information at all levels and developing a problem-solving approach, which Ray believed went beyond the concept of industrial democracy of the late 1970s.

The agreement has been in place for just over a year and Ray admitted that the jury is still out. The legal mechanism of injunctive relief, that prevents the employer from proceeding with their plans if a breach occurs, has yet to be tested but he said the mindset of most employees recognised the benefit of Royal Mail as an employer of general workers.

Tony Burke, Assistant Generation Secretary of UNITE, spoke about the experiences of the private sector, with particular reference to the print industry. He emphasised that collective bargaining was not dead. He accepted that it now took different formats but in manufacturing it was still working effectively. He reminded the Forum that national collective agreements still existed in construction, in the oil industry and paper and packaging. He also referred to the past political promotion of collective bargaining, for example, when in 1938 the Minister of Labour, Ernie Brown MP, told the Commons that government policy was ‘to promote collective bargaining’. To illustrate the issues facing trade unions seeking to uphold national collective agreements Tony described the decline and extinction of the long-standing print industry national agreement with the print unions.

Tony told the Forum that at its peak the print sector National Agreement covered 100,000 workers;  during the 1970s and 1980s it was typical of the bargaining of the time where a ritual dance took place each year and covered every working condition possible in the sector. In the 1990s some of the larger companies covered by the agreement started their own process. Tony admitted that some union representatives were not unhappy with this development as they believed they could secure a better deal this way. At its peak the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF), the industry’s employers’ association, believed the unions were powerful, but as unions suffered major defeats in the 1980s that attitude changed. This was coupled by the effects of technological development on the print industry, which made many of the agreements irrelevant to work practices. As the National Agreement became moribund the Graphical, Paper & Media Union (GPMU) went to the Labour government in 2004 with a proposal to reinvigorate it based on partnership, productivity and competitiveness  and received £250,000 to enable them to work on a new, wide-ranging agreement.  

In answering his own question as to why this new agreement did not stick, Tony identified four issues which led to its eventual demise. Gradually, more employers became less willing to be involved; the industry changed with new workers having little understanding of collective bargaining; the structure of the industry changed with increasing numbers of small employers; eventually management no longer saw a benefit in collective bargaining. While this agreement collapsed, collective bargaining continues to function across the industry albeit on a single company or site basis. Finally, Tony reminded the Forum that collective bargaining in Europe was still prominent, citing a recent IG Metal agreement in Germany covering almost two million workers.

The discussion that followed the presentations explored partnership, the Information and Consultation Regulations and the role of politics. There was recognition that the changing structures of companies, and the financialisation and globalisation of industry, had had a major impact on the collective bargaining process. The debate also centred on the way ahead: for trade unions to recognise the need to build collective bargaining in unorganised industries such as social care, using problems such as care for the elderly and secure employment, as a basis for consultation and ultimately collective bargaining by building on grassroot activism based on single issue campaigns.

Professor Peter Ackers asked why unions had turned away from partnership agreements. Tony’s reference to the Conservative Minister of Labour’s support for collective bargaining in the 1930s underlined the state’s promotion of it for much of the twentieth century. This explained the spread of collective bargaining to most industries. Statutory backing through the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) continued into the 1980s, when it was abolished by the Thatcher government. It was not restored by Labour governments in office between 1997 and 2010.

Tony referred to Keith Ewing and John Hendy’s report, Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining (Institute of Employment Rights 2015), which the major unions had signed up to.

Jim Moher said that the legally-binding nature of the Royal Mail/CWU agreement was most significant. In the past unions (and employers) were reluctant to make their agreements legally enforceable. That attitude was borne out of what was known as an industrial relations ‘voluntarist’ tradition i.e. minimal state/legal regulation, which left it to the parties involved to honour agreements. However, all that had changed to the current legalistic environment governing industrial relations, and so other unions may wish to reconsider the legally-binding option as giving more protection of workers’ rights.

As regards the Information and Consultation Regulations, Tony explained how GPMU and a few other unions (eg GMB) had tried to use them with TUC support. These regulations were an EU Commission initiative enabling unions to seek more information from companies and to consult them about certain changes. However, because the petition process was very complicated and time-consuming, union efforts did not achieve great results.

An important point was also made that trade union structures had not changed since their power was at its peak, though they had been devised to match the industrial structures of their day. Companies had taken the next step of globalisation but unions had not, although Amicus/Unite have tried with limited effect.

Regarding the Living Wage and attempts to secure minimum standards through legal regulation and good practice, Ellis cited the reliance by Whistl and Amazon on taxpayers’ subsidies to underpin bare minimum pay. A discussion followed about Cameron and Osborne’s paradoxical encouragement to employers to pay higher wages.  Ray also talked of Whitley Council-type structures being revived as a means of giving a role for trade unions.  This chimed with Tony’s point on the ‘political will’ needed. Tony said that it would be difficult to return to past structures and that unions would have to consider concessions and accept that they might not always achieve a comprehensive collective bargaining arrangement.

Ellis said that about 20% of the workforce was covered by collective agreements but the majority of people didn’t see their interests as being aligned with these workers, so collective bargaining legislation was of limited appeal. However, the public does tune in to concepts of ‘fairness at work’, ‘living wage’ and ‘rate for the job’. Ellis felt that the neoliberal consensus was now broken, having failed to deliver a narrative where employers have to provide a minimum standard of life.

In summing up, each speaker emphasized the continuing existence of collective bargaining.  Tony argued political will was needed to rebuild collective bargaining at sectoral and national level. Trade unions had to recognise that some concessions on traditional structures of bargaining would be necessary and that Europe offered examples of good practice.

Ray recognised the long slow decline of collective bargaining but also felt that a change in the political climate was necessary to build on public opposition to precarious employment and that trade unions had a clear role in arguing for regulation to secure minimum standards.

Melanie believes that politicians do not understand business. Therefore trade unions need to take this into account when seeking a change of political view. She also reminded us that collective bargaining is not the only activity of trade unions. Campaigning on the living wage and other social objectives can help to demonstrate the effectiveness of trade unions. She agreed that while collective bargaining was not dead, it is currently confined to the public sector and the regulated parts of the private sector.

About the authors 

Roger Jeary worked for 33 years in the trade union movement as a negotiator regionally and nationally and, prior to retirement from UNITE, was their Director of Policy and Research for eight years. Roger has a post-graduate qualification in Industrial Relations Structures and Employment Law and is a Trustee Director at ShareAction, a charitable trust campaigning for responsible investment. Currently, he is working on an EU Research project for the TUC on WorkAge, identifying workplace interventions to improve the working environment for older workers. He is a member of the Manufacturing Policy Panel of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, and occasionally blogs for the Institute of Employment Rights. He is a member of the Independent Arbitrators Panel for ACAS.

James Moher is a retired national union official (CWU and T&GWU) who has also studied and published works on trade-union history. He is a Tutor (part-time) on Labour and Trade Union History at Ruskin College, Oxford and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London.



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