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Businesses must avoid ‘complacency’ on pay to minimise risk of recognition requests

Manufacturers should avoid becoming complacent about employee pay and internal banding to minimise the risk of union-led recognition requests and/or industrial action, an expert has said.

Manufacturing sector employment law expert Neil Black of Pinsent Masons described a “real spike” in requests for collective bargaining rights from unions representing ‘white collar’ workers – those in office-based administrative or managerial roles – who have historically been less likely to unionise.

“Recent waves of industrial action which have plagued most sectors have left white-collar workers, particularly those at the more junior end, feeling they have not had a pay deal which is as beneficial for them as their blue-collar colleagues,” Black said.  Blue-collar workers – those who tend to perform manual labour - have recently enjoyed pay increases which are more generous than their white-collar colleagues.  Whilst trade unions are key to attribute this to their role in wage negotiations, this ignores other significant contributing factors notably the significant increases in the National living wage in the UK.  Irrespective of the causes, the closing of the gap between white-collar and blue-collar workforces has “created a sense of unfairness within the white-collar workforce which in turn is fertile ground for trade unions to recruit within, advocating the benefits of trade union recognition and in turn collective bargaining”, Black added.

Black said that employers should be keeping an eye on competitor pay and banding to ensure they are not falling behind others in the sector.  Equally employers will often have fair rationale for differences in pay increases across different parts of the workforce but often do not share this with the workforce. “They also need to keep their internal pay and bandings under review and identify any areas where the gaps are narrowing based on historic norms as these are the areas of the business which are more susceptible to trade union recognition requests”, he added. This is following a wave of instances of voluntary recognition requests from unions in respect of junior white-collar workers who perceive that they will “secure a better deal” if they have their pay collectively bargained by a trade union. 

Voluntary recognition is where a union is voluntarily recognised by an employer for collective bargaining purposes in respect of a defined group of employees. It is often secured where there is evidence that the union have support from a sufficient number of staff such that they could obtain statutory recognition if they were to apply to the Central Arbitration Committee.  Recognition in one “pocket” of the business means that unions could get more face time with other staff with aims of negotiating pay or other working environment changes, ultimately giving them more collective bargaining power and the potential for further recognition requests either on site or at other locations in the future.

Greater levels of collective bargaining power could lead to national collective bargaining agreements. Some unions have recently achieved voluntary recognition on a separate basis across multiple sites at a single employer, allowing for a request for national agreements. 

Black added: “Employers need to ensure they are tracking promotions of this type to identify ‘hot spot’ areas of the business which are more vulnerable to union recognition requests. However, more important is for employers to ask themselves why requests of this nature might be on the rise. It is often due to there being a perception that workers do not have a collective voice.” 

Emma Noble, Co-Lead of the Pinsent Masons Trade Union and Industrial Relations team said that “ensuring workers have an effective way of being heard is key in keeping employer-employee relationships positive, and in turn mitigating the likelihood of union intervention.” Employers are also advised to be transparent with employees. Methods such as employee forums, surveys, and other collective voice initiatives could be used, but Noble added that “there needs to be tangible, ‘good news’ stories and actions taken from these initiatives for them to be effective”, Noble added. 

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