Category Archives: Industrial Relations

Select Committees bare their teeth

Two Select Committees are in the news for very different reasons. Both have important lessons for business.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has published a controversial report condemning News International for the News of the World‘s alleged widespread phone-tapping of public figures. There are potentially major reputation – and possibly legal – implications for Rupert Murdoch‘s UK newsgroup.

Yesterday, too, Bank of England Governor, Sir Mervyn King appeared for the 17th time before the Treasury Select Committee and its forensic Chairman, John McFall MP. It was also King’s 19th Parliamentary questioning on the economic crisis in 29 months. Like Bob Beamon’s long-jump record, this was set in extraordinary circumstances and is unlikely to be surpassed for a very long time. King admitted that his time before the Treasury Committee “hadn’t been fun and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t been easy”. But what King did acknowledge is the high quality of the Committee’s reports and that they have contributed to the reform of the UK financial sector.

Parliamentary Select Committees rarely attract much attention beyond the Westminster village. Although they have existed for centuries, the modern system of departmental Select Committees was only established in 1979, as an innovation under Margaret Thatcher. Today, there are 19 of them. In the last full session they produced nearly 250 reports, but only about 25 of them were debated in Parliament. These reports are hardly ever read by anyone outside the Westminster bubble. And apart from the Mervyn King Show the work of the committees rarely makes it onto television screens – unless you watch the Parliamentary Channel at two in the morning.

Despite this, the Select Committees should not be ignored by businesses and campaigning organisations that seek to influence policy. Select Committees can present a valuable means to, at the very least, publicise views, criticisms or policy proposals. With a well-argued case, which wins over the committees, organisations can sometimes even exert some influence on Government policy.

But Select Committees are also be bear traps. I have helped prepare people for grillings from McFall and other Committees, so I know how King felt each time he was up before his inquisitor. It can be even worse for representatives of commercial organisations, whose company reputations (and their own jobs) can be on the line. News International is one high-profile, politicised example. But damage can also be done in much lower-profile committees: witness the discomfort that Tesco suffered at the hands of the Human Rights Committee last year, when pressed about its refusal to meet a trade union seeking recognition in its US subsidiary. Select Committees should not be underestimated.

And, potentially, with a minority Government in a hung Parliament or with a weak majority, who knows? Select Committees could be more influential than ever before.

BA chief’s anti-union argument doesn’t fly

“We will not allow Unite to ruin this company,” said BA‘s CEO, Willie Walsh, yesterday, after 81% of cabin staff voted for strike action on a 79% turnout. This ballot, re-run following BA’s successful quashing of a ballot run at the end of the year, confirms the huge opposition among BA’s employees to the changes that BA is trying to impose on them.

Walsh is trying to position this dispute in the industrial relations language of the 1970s, as a battle between a reasonable company and a bullying union hell-bent on destruction. But this is not the 1970s and BA’s employees are not militant miners or British Leyland workers, led by aggressive class-warrior opponents of capitalism. BA cabin stewards are a broad spectrum of working-class and middle-class men and women working in a service industry in the 21st century. They did not start this dispute by demanding extortionate pay rises; they are seeking, entirely reasonably, to protect their jobs and incomes from changes being forced upon them. If there is an aggressor in this dispute, it is Walsh.

His positioning of this as a dispute with Unite, the union to which the vast majority of BA’s cabin crew belong, is wrong. The days when a strong union leader could call a strike and intimidate workers into joining it were ended by the Thatcher union reforms and the crushing of the NUM in the early 1980s. In BA’s case, cabin crew took part in a secret ballot, and they voted against the company in their thousands. This is not a dispute between BA and Unite, but between BA and its employees, and for him to regard the cabin crew as pawns of their union is to disregard the legitimacy of their concerns. This is a disastrous industrial relations strategy.

Ultimately, Walsh will have to reach a compromise and the day-to-day operation of BA will get back to normal. But he has irreversibly damaged his relations with his own employees, who will not quickly forgive nor forget his railroading of them. Companies flourish or fail through their employees and a service industry even more so. BA will be having bumpy flights for some time to come.