How far can partnership between trade unions and employers go? Not right to the top, evidently. A proposal to hold biennial meetings between the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry was rejected by the CBI last week.
`We wouldn’t go as far as that,’ a CBI spokesman said. `We do want to find common ground, but only meet where appropriate in joint forums.’
Sir Ken Jackson, general secretary of the politically moderate Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, who proposed the idea, says he believes that such a move would help build a strike-free future for industry. He has practiced what he preached: the AEEU recently championed a no-strike deal at airline service company Monarch Aircraft Engineering.
Such partnership ideas are very much in vogue, and Tony Blair was among the first to promote them – especially after getting flak from the unions for appearing to bend too far over the CBI’s fears about the Working Time Directive.
`When we back business, we are supporting employees and employment,’ he told the TUC conference last week.
Unions are finding that they have little option but to agree with the rhetoric, partly because of the changes that took place during the Thatcher years, but also because of legislative pressures, such as the European Works Council Directive, which have forced employers and unions to work more closely.
A third factor is the changes in management style, including ideas imported from Germany and Japan, which depend on the participation of the workforce.
`You can’t employ just-in-time or total quality management methods when you still have wildcat strikes,’ says Joe O’Mahoney, human resources lecturer at Aston University.
`Cooperation is already the status quo in Germany and Japan, and single union, no-strike deals are already common practice,’ he adds.
But ironically, during the week in which partnership talks dominated the TUC, Ford tool makers at Dagenham and Enfield – backed by the local AEEU – decided to down tools in a 24-hour stoppage over pay. Jackson’s rosy, strike-free future, although an admirable goal, still appears unrealistic.