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July 09, 2018

'Sweetheart Unions', and how the law unfairly protects them

As all of you reading this will know, despite the great determination of the PPU, VA management have repeatedly refused to recognise us as a legitimate representative for pilots, despite the overwhelming majority of its own staff being PPU members.


The Employment Relations Act of 1999 allows for a Certificated Union such as the Professional Pilots Union (PPU) to apply to an employer for Voluntary Recognition.


Schedule A1 Part 1 of this Act lays down the requirements under which applications can be made. The PPU meets every single one of these requirements.


This Employment Relations Act stipulates that the parties (ie the employer and union in question) may conduct negotiations with a view to agreeing a bargaining unit.


If the negotiations fail, the Union may apply to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) to decide whether the proposed bargaining unit, or another bargaining unit, is most appropriate.


If the employer does not agree to recognise the union voluntarily, then the union can apply to the CAC for Statutory Recognition.


However, Paragraph 35 of this same Schedule states that such an application is not admissible if the CAC is satisfied that there is already a collective agreement in force under which a union is entitled to conduct collective bargaining.


This means that a company can accept a recognition agreement with one union and refuse to recognise another union, even if the lattermost union’s representation of workers falls within the relevant bargaining unit.


Effectively, the law works to stifle all competition between unions, and endorses companies who choose to maintain and support an undemocratic ‘sweetheart union’.


Law firms have for some time offered to act as anti-union consultants (see the Logan Report). Indeed, at the Trade Union Roadshow on May 16th, 2000, law firm Eversheds (now Eversheds Sutherland) touted:

“65 years US experience with union organizational experience provides valuable parallels from which UK employers can learn how to stay union free....It is clear from US experience that worthy UK employers, who are imaginative, nimble and flexible... will be able to defeat union organizing efforts.”


The current dispute over recognition between Virgin Atlantic Airways and the PPU is still unresolved. VA management has carefully choreographed a pretence of negotiation, knowing full well that it is protected from statutory recognition by the law. 


But we are not alone in this struggle to be recognised in an official capacity.


In 2012 the Pharmacists' Defence Association (PDA) called for official recognition from its employer, Boots, after claiming that employees were tired of their employment terms being gradually eroded.


Boots management knew what a good thing it was for them to keep the PDA out. When it transpired that the PDA union was going to apply for recognition, Boots made a conciliatory feint, urging the union to stay its application so that negotiations could take place.


Eventually the PDA went to the High Court, whose decision opened up the possibility of the PDA Union applying for the incumbent ‘sweetheart’ union, the Boots Pharmacists’ Association (BPA), to be formally ‘derecognised’.


The management of Boots used the interim period to sign a new recognition deal with the BPA, which didn't give the BPA any bargaining rights over pay, hours or conditions – it simply offered "consultative dialogue".


Even the CAC accepted that the BPA had exhibited a "meek" relationship to its employers, having failed to defend members' interests.


The case for the PDA kept foundering on Paragraph 35 of the Employment Law 1999 but thankfully the Courts have now ruled that the BPA was not an independent union.


We cannot tolerate instances like this, where the law supports unions who are not independent, and who do not act within the interests of their employees.


Now would be a good time to address the many companies that do wrong by their employees, and refuse to recognise an independent union despite their best efforts to establish a cordial dialogue.


Let us be clear the Consultative Survey is not about pay. It is about safety, professionalism and respect. All that we want at the PPU is to better the situation of the Company that employs us, but that must start by bettering the situation of its pilots.