I was an elected national negotiator for NATFHE/UCU from 1994-96 and from 1997 to 2016. During that time as a national negotiator in addition to attending formal negotiating meetings of PCNNC (Polytechnic and Colleges National Negotiating Committee – pronounced PICNIC) and JNCHES (Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff), later rebadged as New JNCHES, and meetings of the trade union side, I also served on some working parties, concerned with equal pay and equality.
NATFHE/UCU was involved in working parties, as I remember, on equal pay, equality issues, job security and casualisation.
I have written some reflections in case this experience is useful to other trade unionists contemplating whether it is a worthwhile use of time and energy to participate in working parties or not. My conclusion is that they can be occasionally useful but do not normally deliver a lot.
What are working parties – and how are they different from formal negotiations?
In formal national negotiating meetings, behaviour is quite ritualised. Sometimes only the chair, official or lead speaker for each side speaks in the meetings. Claims are presented, adjournments taken and sometimes offers made, which are then taken away for decision by trade union members. Members of each side, whatever their personal views, maintains a common front against the other side.
In working parties, when operating in working party mode, the discussion is less formal. Suggestions and ideas can be discussed and then withdrawn. Every member of the working party gets to speak and sometimes even to contribute to writing materials. For elected lay negotiators of trade unions this can sometimes be initially a more appealing and friendlier environment in which to work. There is less of ‘two sides’ and sometimes one is working with HR professionals and senior managers who do have some commitment to equality and what they believe to be good management practice.
Time in working parties can genuinely be pleasanter than times in formal negotiating meetings or being at ACAS (which can be like waiting at an airport for a delayed plane, in that you sit around for ages waiting for something to happen, as the employer side 20-minute adjournment stretches to two hours.) One does not as a trade unionist, however, become a national negotiator in order to have a pleasant day out in London or some other city. The point is to improve the conditions of employment of the workers one represents.
The terms of reference of working parties
Establishing the terms of reference of working parties is a negotiating activity. If the trade union side does not ensure the inclusion of its agenda and objectives at this stage, it can find the chair rules these out as beyond the remit of the working party. So, the basis on which the working party is set up is important.
Mandates or guidelines and recommendations
This is the heart of the problem with working parties. Sometimes employer negotiating bodies genuinely cannot get a mandate from their subscribers to negotiate around the matters the trade unions want to negotiate, sometimes they lack the expertise to do so and sometimes they do not want to do so.
Within JNCHES I have seen the employers’ preferred negotiating agenda shrink from a wide range of matters, including hours of work and holidays, to the annual percentage pay increase and virtually nothing else.
If the negotiating role of the employer body declines in scope, then employer bodies develop some of their other functions, such as running seminars and issuing guidance for their subscribers. They become more like HR consultants than IR negotiators. This of course helps to ensure job security for their staff.
Working parties can fit comfortably for the employers within this role, since they produce research reports, guidelines, and recommendations. These can form the basis of seminars and conferences, sometimes with trade union speakers and trade union attendees in addition to employer representatives, which are seen as disseminating good practice.
The problem, of course, for trade unions is that we much prefer collective agreements, which are implemented by employers, rather than guidelines or recommendations, which each local employer can choose whether to consider for implementation or not. Even when the local employer takes a positive view of the recommendations, there is still much work for local negotiators to get them implemented.
Their equality agendas and ours
Equality issues are often presented to trade unions as ones for suitable partnership working. Trade unions need to be aware that while there may be some points of overlap in agendas, they are not identical. Let us take the example of equal pay for work of equal value. For trade unions equal pay for workers, irrespective of age, disability, race, sex and sexual orientation, represents a basic principle of fairness and solidarity. We want a high level of equal pay determined via collective bargaining. Our equality agenda is based on levelling up not levelling down.
Sometimes the employer agenda on equal pay is principally an agenda about avoiding equal pay claims at employment tribunals. Sometimes it is about bringing in job evaluation and spot salaries. Sometimes employers are keen to mobilise arguments about equal pay to argue for the reduction or removal of incremental pay scales. In fact, the most effective ways of ending the gender pay gap are through a decent national minimum wage and industry-wide national pay bargaining.
There is also the question of how equality pay gaps and other workplace inequalities are explained. Proposals for affirmative action and equality polices often embody explanations, sometime unacknowledged, of causes of inequality. These explanations can relate to individual psychology and personal characteristics, organisational factors, e.g., sex segregation in the workplace, or social structural factors. In equality issues the definition of the problem has implications for which remedies are chosen. So, we can end up with assertiveness training and career development courses for women because the gender pay gap and the lack of women in senior posts are defined in terms of a need to re-socialise women to compete more effectively in macho, competitive, workaholic workplace cultures, which make life impossible for any worker with any caring responsibilities. Trade unions need to be careful about victim-blaming explanations and or explanations of inequality which focus solely on the personal characteristics of individuals. We also need to be clear that equality and promotion are not the same.
Similarly with working parties on subjects such as casualisation and job security, the trade union side sees an end to casualisation and greater job security as a desirable objective. Some employer representatives will advance the view that working first in a series of temporary jobs is a normal early career stage or a training opportunity. I remember one meeting where the chair of the employer side, a vice-chancellor, assured us that his daughter who was doing a PhD was perfectly happy with four zero hours’ contracts! So, there can be fundamental differences about what should be viewed as a problem in the first place.
Sometimes substantial amounts of research, including literature reviews and data-gathering exercise are undertaken for working parties. If so, it is important that the trade union side is involved in the research design and the way the issues are framed. In tackling casualisation or the gender pay gap, it can be useful to have reliable statistics about patterns of pay and employment. Equality monitoring can be useful in raising awareness of inequalities and monitoring progress towards equality. We should be aware, however, that knowledge of inequality and the relevant statistics does not automatically translate into action to remedy these inequalities. There is still the question of whether the employer side really views these inequalities as problems which should be remedied.
The danger of relying wholly on reasoned argument
As in formal negotiations, winning the argument is not the same as winning a good outcome. It can be that in the working group the trade union side makes an excellent case for whatever reforms in employment relations it is seeking, supported by much evidence and research. Nonetheless the employer side seeks to water down proposals and what emerges are some limited recommendations and guidelines which are not implemented widely. Where this is the case, what is needed is industrial action, not more eloquence in a negotiating forum or a working party.
Good publicity for employers
Sometimes the employer side likes to produce joint reports from working parties, which are attractively produced and have trade union and employer logos on the cover. This has elements of a public relations exercise. I remember on one occasion one of these reports being launched at an event at the Globe Theatre with drinks and elegant canapes.
Now while it is the case that employers may gain some positive publicity for equality initiatives, it is not the role of trade unions to become part of the public relations team of the employer side. We need to keep asking the question ‘does this work actually improve conditions for members in the workplace?’
What can trade unions achieve and not achieve in working parties?
To summarise, working parties can have some usefulness in keeping issues alive, so that they do not fall off the negotiating agenda, in raising awareness and producing recommendations which can be taken up locally. For instance, JNCHES produced documents on how to carry out equal pay audits. This was a useful activity, but it did not commit all HEIs to carrying out equal pay audits. Where a union has a strong workplace organisation with capable and experienced local negotiators, outcomes of a working party may be a basis on which the union can build in local negotiations.
The problem is that recommendations from working parties still need to be negotiated and implemented locally. Where a union branch is already struggling with a massive workload and/or where the local employer is not interested or hostile, the working party report and recommendations are more likely to be ignored or given scant attention.
Working parties may give publicity to issues, produce evidence and document inequalities. They may thus contribute to the campaign work of a union in terms of longer-term cultural change around various issues.
Is it worth taking part in working parties? Maybe sometimes, but the union needs to think about it rather than just agreeing to working parties on any suggested topic. The time and effort, in terms of the involvement of both full-time union staff and lay representatives, can be substantial for limited benefits. Where there is an option of pursuing union objectives through direct negotiation, supported by industrial action if necessary, this is likely to be preferable.