Acas sees rising demand for conciliation in disputes

Acas has seen a significant increase in demand for conciliation in large-scale disputes in the past year. The conciliation service's 2010/11 annual report shows it dealt with 1,054 collective disputes over the period, up 15 per cent from 2009/10. Pay  continued to be the top issue followed by redundancy.

Given that ONS statistics show a 33 per cent drop in working days lost to industrial action over the same period, this spike in demand suggests an increased pressure on parties to settle disputes, as opposed to simply an increase in disputes.

Click here to access the ACAS report.

CAC reports drop in statutory recognition applications

The 2010/11 annual report from the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) revealed a drop in activity, with 28 applications for statutory recognition compared to 42 in each of the two previous years. In total, 742 applications have been registered with the CAC. Of these, 225 have gained statutory recognition, 188 were unsuccessful or were still pending and 329 were withdrawn.

The outcome of any ballots, ordered to decide statutory recognition, is always of interest to employers. In the year ending 31 March 2011, ten ballots were held; six resulting in recognition and four not. This is broadly in line with the historical average. During the same period, there were no decisions that a ballot should be held where a trade union had a majority of workers in membership.

New ways of trade union organising

Stagnant or declining membership levels (see June’s Labour Law Update), are forcing trade unions to consider new ways of organising. Unite has launched cut-price memberships for students and the unemployed, as it attempts to boost its ranks, and is currently seeking permission to visit schools to promote awareness of the union movement. Some trade unions are using social media, such as Facebook, to campaign against the deficit cuts while at the same time providing click-through links to join the union (a potential benefit being to widen the reach of trade unions beyond their traditional membership base).

More generally, the use of social media in trade union organising is growing, particularly as it is seen as a way to connect with younger workers, a key target audience. ACAS’s recent commentary on social media and its impact on trade unions considers this trend, as well as how UK trade unions are using social media for campaigning (also know as ‘digital activism’). It gives the view that social media has already changed the conduct of industrial disputes and may impact more fundamentally on the balance of power between employer and employee.

Click here to view ACAS commentary on social media.

Recent UK labour case law

Gayle v Sandwell & West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust

This Court of Appeal judgment concerned a claim by Ms Gayle that she had suffered a detriment on grounds related to union activities, namely, that she had been given a final written warning for taking part in trade union activities during working hours and this warning contributed to her eventual dismissal.

The warning was imposed after Ms Gayle attended a union meeting within working hours without her manager’s permission and having failed to cooperate with efforts to agree a process for taking such time-off. Her appeal failed and the Court confirmed that the final written warning was imposed because she had refused to meet with management to agree time-off for union activities, not as a penalty for taking the time-off.

Despite being a relatively straightforward judgment, the fact that it went to the Court of Appeal, took five years to do so and involved nearly three weeks of Employment Tribunal hearings, will concern many employers already critical of the workings of the tribunal system.

Click here to read the case.

EU labour law update

EU conducts “fitness check” on three employment Directives

The Commission is currently reviewing whether the following three EU Directives are ‘fit for purpose’ in the area of informing and consulting workers: the Collective Redundancies (1998), Transfer of Undertakings (2001) and Information of Workers (2002) Directives. It is expected to publish a report on its findings early next year.

While this review is part of a rolling programme beyond employment policy, there is a concern that it will lead to legal “creep” if it results in new or amending legislation to fill gaps and address inconsistencies. The recast EWC Directive provides a recent example of how a Commission review of an existing Directive can result in increasing employer information and consultation duties. Moreover, the exercise of information and consultation has come under greater scrutiny, given the current economic turbulence, and we can expect employee representatives to be pushing for this review to deliver an increase in worker protection.