‘Automatic' union recognition is here at last. But all the signs are it is far from automatic'.

The much-heralded legislation giving unions the right to force employers to negotiate over hours and conditions is now in force. But, as so often is the case with New Labour, it doesn't add up to much.

The legislation is modelled on US labour laws and has not prevented union membership plummeting to below 18% of the workforce. To make sure it stays that way, bosses in the UK have been learning from US ‘experts' on how to confront workers to keep unions out of the workplace. UK legal firm Eversheds has been prompted to put on a nationwide roadshow tour, aimed at providing precisely this advice to employers. Meanwhile, PTI Labour Research, an anti-trade union US consultancy firm, have stated that they have held meetings with a number of legal firms interested in union busting work.

The legislation itself is complex and places a number of hurdles that must be overcome before union recognition can be granted. Firms that employ less than 21 workers are excluded from the act. Such small companies are often the most exploitative in terms of pay, conditions and safety. For larger firms, even when a clear majority of the workforce are union members, a ballot must take place. For automatic recognition, the result must be a claer majority in favour, with at least 40% of all those entitled to vote backing union recognition (-if political elections were undertaken on this basis, Labour would have failed at the last election, despite their huge ‘majority'!) If the employers then refuse to accept automatic union recognition, then the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) can (and theoretically should) impose collective bargaining methods on them.

The government hopes that unions and employers will reach agreements prior to the involvement of the CAC. Even when the CAC is involved, time is allocated at each stage of the process to encourage early CAC-assisted agreement. In most cases, the likely outcome is that union leaders and management will reach a deal over the heads of the workers themselves, with very little worker involvement.

This need not happen. The act can be used as a cover for establishing the framework for effective future workplace organisation. The process of recruitment and the meeting allowed under the Act in the run-up to the ballot can be used to establish the democratic principles of a new type of union organisation - one run by the workers and not the union leaders. In order to do so, it is crucial that workers keep control of the recognition process, especially the size and the nature of the bargaining unit.

The Act gives considerable scope as to what form the bargaining unit can take. It has only to consist of a definable group, for example, it can consist of all hourly paid workers, or those in certain grades or departments. Workers should collectively restrict the bargaining unit to those who are interested in union organisation based on worker participation. Setting up for direct democracy at the start will prevent union organisation being made up of an apathetic paper membership in the future.

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