Following the High Court decision to overturn the BA injunction stopping employees from going on strike, Steve Blunt employment partner at Clyde & Co – and previously an elected national union official and head of legal for part of the union Unite – warned that this could be the forerunner of an extended period of industrial unrest.
“A ‘perfect storm’ is brewing in the workplace;” commented Steve Blunt. “Over the last six months we have spoken to a considerable number of HR directors across a wide range of businesses – and they are more concerned about relations with their unions than they have been for several years.
“Although 28% of the UK’s workforce are union members, many are employed in the private sector. Over the past few years as the practice of outsourcing services has spread, many companies have acquired pockets of union employees in previously un-unionised organisations and often these groups are working at commercial pinch points. The successful management of the relationship with the union then becomes vital to the organisation.
“Yet the dynamics and decision making processes of a union are very different from that of a commercial organisation. Union leaders often have little personal 'buy-in' to dispute resolution and have their own agendas. Misunderstandings and unforeseen events can and do easily happen, resulting in a breakdown in communication and a lack of trust on both sides. Currently there are unions led by some radical characters and they appear increasingly willing to flex their muscles.
“The implementation of government cuts and the outsourcing of unionised workforces could lead to further significant disruption over the months and years ahead. Companies dealing with unions in this changing environment need to be much more “clued up” on how to manage the relationship with unions and avoid issues flaring up into expensive disputes.
“Against this backdrop the decision by the High Court last Friday was an important one. It defines more closely what is “reasonably necessary” in terms of communication by the union and makes it clear that employers will need to carefully scrutinise union procedures. However, it also shows unions how to avoid such legal challenges and embark on more successful action.”