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Curtains for Wages Council?

26th December 1975
Page 12
Page 12, 26th December 1975 — Curtains for Wages Council?
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

by John Darker

THE joint industrial council set up in Scotland a few months ago following agreement between the Road Haulage Association and the Transport and General Workers' Union anticipated national policy.

The Employment Protection Act which received the Royal Assent on November 12 gives the Secretary of State for Employment power to convert wages councils into statutory joint industrial councils. The JIC's would be a stepping stone to a still freer system of voluntary wage bargaining and the settlement of disputes; in their turn, JIC's could be dissolved by Mr Michael Foot —or a successor Secretary of State.

Scotland was uniquely qualified to engage in labour relations trail-blazing. It had suffered a traumatic road haulage strike causing ripples of concern throughout Britain. It had pushed the whole of Britain "over the hump" of £40 a week, achieving the longsought aim of the road haulage trade unions--£1 an hour for heavy goods vehicle drivers.

Scotland, in terms of road haulage organisation, was an "area" of the RHA and Scotland has always enjoyed a fair measure of autonomy in trade union matters. There is a Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish offices of the TGWU traditionally demonstrate militant independence. (Alex Kitson the TGWU executive secretary was formerly general secretary of the Scottish Commercial Motormen's union; the incorporation of this active body within the TGWU would not have been possible without a large measure of autonomy for the Scottish drivers).

Above all, Scotland was kicking over the traces with the Government in London. History may one day reveal the industrial relations consequences of Scottish nationalism. It is hard to doubt that nationalistic fervour has influenced events.

The Road Haulage Wages Council, in common with many others, has operated under the Wages Councils Act 1959. Wages Councils derive from earlier attempts by the State to ensure minimum rates of pay in backward industries where the level of trade union organi sation—and hence of effective collective bargaining arrangements—was minimal. Although the larger firms in road transport have been "organised" for several decades, it was not feasible for trade unions to iecruit membership in the thousands of small companies • in greenfields areas. Hence the reason why Wages Councils were established by law to prevent certain employers paying wages below a minimum established by agreement on a national basis.

Clearly, if certain employers paid wages verging on subsistence levels, they would obtain an unfair advantage in the market place. The Wages Council scales for pay, and conditions of service were above subsistence levels, though by how much is debatable. The fact that the larger firms in road haulage could afford to pay two or three times as much as Wages Council pay scales would permit reflects upon the great diversity of haulage rates prevailing in Britain.

By inference, the many firms sticking closely to Wages Council pay rates 'were geographically not well placed to, quote effectively for high-value traffic—haulage rates tend to relate to the value of the product carried. Hence the lowerpaid lorry drivers probably carry low-value raw materials or agricultural goods.

Although the Scottish JIC claims to represent about 90 per cent of road haulage firms in Scotland there are probably hundreds of firms, not members of the RHA, who continue to be bound by Wages Council minimum pay rates. In England and Wales there is no question but that many thousands of operating firms are not members of the RHA and—on the reverse side of the coin—relatively few employees are members of a trade union. Hence the difficulty of the Secretary of State in sensing the real views of the road haulage induStry to the abolition of the Wages Council.

When Scottish road hauliers were deciding whether to "go it alone" and set up a JIC in concert with the TGWU they sought the views of English RHA areas, such as Northumberland and Durham. Ideally, the set-up in Scotland, worked out with the active assistance of the local officers of ACAS—the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service— could have been suitable throughout the country.

I understand that regional JIC's would establish a precedent that is unlikely to be followed. As stated previously, Scotland is unique in being both a country and an RHA area. It seems unlikely that London will interfere with the Scottish JIC.

ACAS officers, at the request of the Secretary of State, will be holding informal talks with the parties to the present Road Haulage Wages Council in the next few weeks. The trade unions—TGWU, URTU, and other unions with a marginal interest in road transport—will hope that the Secretary of State will decide to change the status of the Wages Council. As a JIC, many of the frustrations associated' with the Wages Council would not exist.

A JIC would consist of the two "sides" without any independent members appointed by the Secretary of State. A JIC could devise its own conciliation machinery to resolve disputes. Perhaps most important, having agreed on pay rates and conditions, these could become operative at an agreed date; there would not be an exasperating period of delay while the parties objected to proposals and the Secretary of State cogitated.

It must be stressed that a national JIC for road haulage will not level out wages and conditions across the board. The effect would be to increase minimum standards. Depending on the degree of freedom al lowed if the country ever again reverts to a voluntary bargaining situation, a JIC may decrease the gap between the earnings of the lowest and highest paid drivers and ancillary staffs.

The Road Haulage Wages Council has not been held in high regard by the trade unions for a number of years. Many small employers in road haulage may regret its passing. In defence of the nominated employers' side of the Council— the RHA suggest names to the Secretary of State—it is fair to say that the men represent the employer side of the industry, they do not represent their own firms, nor the RHA. Hence the union jibes that Wages Council employer members pay a lot more to their own drivers than the Wages Council scales loses some effect. It is small consolation to trade unions seeking to maximise the level of earnings in road haulage and concerned to point to the abuses which so often follow low pay rates —excess hours, axle loads and the rest.

Road haulage in recent years has been a Tom Tiddler's Ground in labour relations. If the number of strikes has been relatively few, some—not least in the , motor industry—have been very damaging economically. The leapfrogging in pa claims when one area was set off against another has been a costly business to employers, and customers.

The ill-fated National Negotiating Committee„ still-born in 1968, represented a failure of industry statesmanship. We must hope that the new pattern of pay negotiations and concilation made possible by a Joint Industrial Council for England and Wales would represent a major stage in road haulage's coming of age.

A final thought is that the successful Scottish JIC initiative owes much to the much maligned "assenting hauliers" group. It has always been a paradox that the RHA, as such, refuses to negotiate, or allow its officers to negotiate, with trade unions. Yet in Scotland, ACAS had no alternative but to bring together the TGWU and the sizeable road haulage employers—the pattern that has established itself, despite the Road Haulage Wages Council, in other parts of the country.

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