By Daniel Hunter

In a speech to business leaders today (Wednesday), Dr Neil Bentley, CBI Deputy Director-General, will set out the challenges that the modern workplace presents for businesses and trade unions.

Speaking at the Eversheds’ Labour Relations Conference, Dr Bentley will outline how the workplace has seen some fundamental changes over the past 30 years, with a move to more flexible, individualised relationships between employees and employers.

He will argue that this has posed a big challenge to companies: to improve management, employee information and consultation and their understanding of diversity. Similar challenges face unions, yet the rules governing industrial relations remain based on a model 30 years old. Democratisation and modernisation is necessary, so that individual union members are in charge.

Dr Neil Bentley, CBI Deputy Director-General, will say:

“The world of work has changed beyond recognition in the past 30 years. Put simply, work today is more flexible, more dynamic, more dependent on technology and less hierarchical than it has ever been.

“For businesses, this means really getting our heads around how to engage with employees as individuals and what they want from work. As a management challenge, this is significant — it requires a whole new approach.”

On the challenge for trade unions, Dr Bentley will say:

“In many workplaces, trade unions continue to play a constructive and important role. But I’m not going to sugar-coat it and say that all is rosy in the garden. If firms have to engage with people as individuals, the role of collective representation must also change to reflect employees’ wishes.

“While employment law has been transformed, union laws have not moved on at the same speed. The current rules are largely unchanged and were crafted for a very different industrial relations landscape in the 1980s. Too often they empower union leaders at the expense of employees.

“What we seek is democratisation and modernisation of the law — bringing it up to date with the modern workplace by empowering individual members.

“A union that succeeds in this environment will be one that parks class war at the door and delivers for its members the way the GMB did at Ellesmere Port. By contrast, PCS at Heathrow on the eve of the Olympics were ready to strike despite the fact that only 11% of those balloted voted for it.

“This type of disproportionate behaviour is not without consequence in a world where our constructive employee relations have to be a source of competitive advantage for the UK.”

Dr Bentley will highlight a series of recommendations to modernise and democratise trade union law, including:

- Ensuring union representation is the result of a positive choice by the workforce, by requiring that a vote is always held in cases of statutory recognition, and by refreshing the mandate every three years by putting it to a vote if the employer requests this.

- Ending the practice of aggregate balloting — in which a union ballots different workforces with different employers over the same issue — which denies an individual workplace their voice and allows them to be overridden by the views of another workforce.

- Being clear about the causes of a dispute, by including a statement from the employer, and the union, along with the ballot paper, and clearly stating the nature of the action that will be taken in the event of a yes vote, and the consequences of this.

- In long running disputes, where direct contact would lead to a settlement that both parties are happy with, allowing employers to offer pay settlements directly to their employees, rather than having to go through union representatives where they were obstructing a reasonable deal that was in employees’ interests.

On the challenges for Government and the CBI’s recommendations, Dr Bentley will say:

“Making sure that the regulatory framework keeps pace with developments in the workplace is the Government’s job. Policies should push both employers and employees’ representatives to make decisions that are good for the long-term health of the firm and the economy.

“These changes are simple, and would underpin positive improvements in the way that employers, unions and employees work together, leading to closer cooperation and engagement. Like the changes of behaviour the new employment relationship requires of employers, they will put the ordinary member in charge.”

Join us on
Follow @freshbusiness