Positive points in the proposed Fairness at Work law

The government's Employment Relations Bill, the long-awaited "Fairness at Work" law, sets out rules under which all offices where the NUJ has a majority of journalists in membership can achieve union recognition and collective bargaining.

That means the union will be able to negotiate on members' behalf on pay and conditions, and represent them when they get into trouble.

There are many positive things (and a few disappointments) in the Bill, which should become law by the autumn, but the recognition provisions are crucial for staff journalists. (There is no change for freelances or casuals; if they can show they are effectively employed, they will enjoy the new rights.)

The Bill says that when a union which can show it has more than 50 per cent of members in a "bargaining unit", recognition will be declared automatically by the Central Arbitration Committee (the CAC, a vestigial department of ACAS which will now assume considerable power in employment relations).

Just who is in a bargaining unit is specified by the union when it applies for recognition. If employers don't like the definition, the CAC must investigate (within 10 days).

For the NUJ it should not be difficult to establish a unit: among the factors the CAC must take into account are the "characteristics of workers falling within the group", and journalists are clearly distinct from other employees. In addition, there are many newsrooms where journalists had their own agreement before it was torn up in the derecognition fever of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

If the union applies for recognition but can't show a majority membership, the CAC can order a ballot. This must be held within four weeks. It need not be a postal ballot if the CAC prefers a workplace vote. Employers must co-operate and allow the union to campaign for a "yes" vote, and pay half the cost. A 50 per cent-plus vote will win, but only if the winning majority constitutes 40 per cent of the whole bargaining unit.

The CAC must be satisfied that a union is "independent", so "sweetheart" unions set up by companies, such as that proposed at News International, should not be recognised. There will be protection for members campaigning for recognition. It will be "unfair dismissal" to sack NUJ activists, and if they are otherwise penalised they can go to a tribunal for compensation. It will be unlawful to select such activists for redundancy when others could have been chosen.

The CAC will also be able to order a ballot, even if majority membership is shown, if it believes a "significant number" of union members don't actually want recognition (an unlikely event) or there are doubts about the recruitment of some members (which some employers may well try to raise).

There are other important advances in the Bill:

  • There will be a right for members to be represented by the NUJ in disciplinary and grievance proceedings. An official will be able to accompany them and speak at hearings (though not to answer questions on their behalf). Union officers who are work colleagues will get time off to represent them. This applies everywhere, not just where the union is recognised.
  • It will become unlawful for employers to sack anyone during the first eight weeks of a lawful strike. (The tough rules on taking industrial action are unchanged.)
  • Employers will now have to consult recognised chapels on training (as well as on redundancies, health and safety and takeovers, which is already the law).
  • Employees will be protected from unfair dismissal after one year's service, instead of two as at present. The compensation limit at Industrial Tribunals will quadrupled to £50,000; if employers resist reinstatement orders there can be an "additional award" of up to a year's salary.
  • The office of the Commissioner for Trade Union Members (the notorious CROTUM), which has given legal backing to several disgruntled NUJ members bringing legal action against the union, will be scrapped. "Blacklisting" of union activists will be outlawed.
  • There will also be the well-publicised extension to maternity leave and new entitlements to (unpaid) parental and compassionate leave.

See also notes on uncertainty for freelances (Jan 1999) and Better living through mathematics? (May 1998).

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