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Is it time to review the Bridlington agreement?

The dispute over recognition for GMB with Carillion Facilities Management at Great Western Hospital (GWH) in Swindon raises important issues related to privatisation of services in the NHS, and the relationship between sister trade unions. GMB is a general union that organises all grades in the NHS, and has a national recognition agreement with the NHS. In several hospitals GMB has significant membership amongst ancillary staffs; house-keeping, portering, catering and other low paid roles.

These are the services that are now being operated by private companies in PFI hospitals, and which are being put out to tender in many other hospitals. This is a growth area for Carillion, according to the Telegraph:

The company said … that it is “well positioned” to achieve “substantial growth” in its UK support services arm from [2012] and that its bid pipeline has grown 50pc to more than £11bn over the past 12 months. Carillion is seeking to win contracts such as managing Sheffield’s traffic and street lighting as well as controlling public property in Oxfordshire.”

It is a significant threat to trade unionism in the public services if employment becomes fractured across several private sector companies, who then cherry pick which unions they wish to deal with; undermining the scope, strength and unity of the national recognition agreements.

As such, GMB has never accepted that Carillion should have been able to deny recognition once they inherited services previously run by NHS, where GMB already have recognition. It should be a matter of trade union principle that we don’t accept management deciding which unions to recognize, against the wishes of their staff and our members. This is particularly the case where de-recognition is associated with privatisation.

GMB has always retained a small footprint of members among the Carillion staff at GWH, some of them transferred over from the former Princess Margaret Hospital where GMB had recognition, and has been representing members effectively in case work for years, despite recognition having been lost when the services were privatised.

In recent months there has been a very sudden upturn towards significant membership, due to GMB recruiting a few highly capable shop stewards from the Goan community, who had been impressed with the results of GMB casework, and the commitment and experience of the local GMB branch in working with migrant communities. These reps have worked with the lay members in the local branch, and with local GMB officers, and they have led the campaign over the issues of bullying and the unfair holiday system.

The vast majority of the recruitment has been infill of people not previously in any union at all. However, a small proportion was people who were joining GMB from UNISON.

Effective trade union organisation requires a number of factors to come together at the same time, and even if there is a good branch and good officers, the lack of good workplace reps can mean that unions are restricted to fire-fighting rather than building sustainable organisation. The key to GMB’s recent growth has been empowering the shop-stewards, but we were lucky that such capable individuals chose GMB.

Lay members will make their own decisions about which union best suits their needs at any one time; and in truth we know that in all workforces where there is more than one union, there will be a process of ebb and flow of members. This can lead to allegations of “poaching”, so let us look at this contentious issue.

The Bridlington Agreement of 1939 spells out principles that TUC unions should not seek to actively recruit by either “poaching ” members from other unions (principle two) or encroaching on an establishment where another union already has a majority of the workers organised (principle five). This was the principle under which the EETPU was expelled from TUC in 1987, following its policy of signing single union deals with a number of employers where it only had a few members, and thus forcing the exclusion of other unions; in some cases where there was already substantive organisation. The expulsion followed a ruling from the TUC Disputes Committee that EETPU should withdraw from agreements at Yuasa, Thorn-EMI and Orion, which it refused to do.

The TUC Disputes process was also invoked, for example in 1971, when a war broke out between ASTMS and NUBE over organisation in the finance sector; precipitated by NUBE seeking merger with the non-TUC staff association in Guardian Royal Exchange, where ASTMS had substantial membership, and ASTMS responded by welcoming membership applications from the high street banks, where NUBE had its main base.

The principle behind the Bridlington Agreement is therefore clear that it is designed to prevent a situation where unions enter into a zero-sum game of competing for each others members, thus weakening and destabilising organisation.

However, we do need to understand a number of changes in the trade union landscape since 1939, which means that the detailed context of the Bridlington Agreement was addressing different problems from today. N Barou’s 1947 book, “British Trade Unions”, is an invaluable resource here, which builds on the work done by GDH Cole and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the previous decade.

In 1939, overall trade union density among the total workforce was 29%, but this was concentrated in a few industries that had high density, and often operated a pre-entry closed shop. What is more, there were hundreds more unions than there are today, often organising one specialist role in industry, and jealously guarding the demarcation lines. Organisation depended upon cash payments to collecting stewards, and unions could effectively only provide services to members where they either had a recognition agreement, or sufficient collective strength to prevail through industrial action.

Individual membership of trade unions was therefore not a significant factor when the Bridlington Agreement was made, nor was the situation envisaged of large general unions coexisting side by side in the same workforce, where neither union has the majority of membership, and where there may be many people not in any union.

Nowadays, individuals hold membership of unions and may pay by Direct Debit; unions offer a number of financial and other services that make individual membership attractive; and section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (EReA 99), as clarified in the Employment Relations Act 2004 which amends the relevant section of EReA 99, provides a right for trade union representation in grievances and disciplinaries where there is no union recognition.

While it is not a sustainable business model to service a majority of miscellaneous members in unorganised workplaces, we still encounter the situation where individuals join the “wrong” union; or retain their union membership when they transfer jobs, so that whereas they may have been in the most appropriate union, they may move to an employer where that union is less appropriate.

The important principle is that individual membership should not be used to destabilise the activities or organisation of other unions; but whereas Principle Five of the Bridlington Agreement was strictly adhered to in the past, where unions would not entertain an individual member in a workplace where another union had substantive membership, this idealised situation no longer matches the reality of modern trade unionism, except in a minority of specialist cases. For example, if a GMB member in a factory where GMB has substantial membership got a new job at Honda, she may not realise that the most appropriate action would be to join UNITE, and she may not notify anyone of her change of employment; if she subsequently approached GMB two years later asking for representation in a grievance, then GMB would be obliged morally and contractually to service that member notwithstanding UNITE’s recognition agreement at Honda. This is not a breach of the spirit of Principle Five of the Bridlington Agreement.

In the case of Carillion in the NHS, UNITE and UNISON already have recognition, and GMB was arbitrarily excluded at the time when Carillion took over NHS services, even though GMB had pre-existing recognition in NHS covering those functions. GMB does not accept this situation, it continues to service and represent its members in Carillion and seeks to increase its membership and organisation within that company, as in all other parts of the NHS. Similarly GMB does not accept that Co-Operative funeral services withdrew recognition in favour of a deal with USDAW, and GMB continues to represent members in the Co-op.

But the most important context is that trade union density is low throughout the NHS, which is also the usual case in Carillion. The only way that any union can seek to rectify that situation by recruiting members and building effective shop floor organisation is by running a campaign aimed at people who are currently not members of any union, and then effectively supporting and representing those members. If one union is successful in one workplace then it will inevitably also attract a few members from other unions, in that particular location.

This is not “poaching”, because such a campaign is neither directed specificaly towards the members of another union; nor is it weakening and destabilising organisation; on the contrary it is strengthening and building organisation.

These issues are important to have clarity about, as GMB continues to prosecute a vigorous campaign to gain recognition with Carillion that may lead to industrial action.

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