Workplace Report March 2022


Keeping it together: collective grievances

While strikes make headlines, it’s important to showcase the other forms of collective action unions take to raise standards. Submitting collective grievances is one of them. We look at how they can resolve workplace disputes, push for better conditions, strengthen organisation in the workplace, and help build the union

Pushing back in hospitality

In January, 70% of staff at MacMerry 300, a Scottish pub chain that manages 13 bars across Glasgow and Dundee, signed a collective grievance documenting around 65 issues affecting bar staff, some of which appeared to show the employer acting illegally. Complaints against management included allegedly ignoring Covid restrictions, underpaying staff, bullying, using the wrong tax codes, “losing” money destined for pensions, failing to pay out sick pay in the middle of a pandemic and docking holiday days for staff who were ill or had to isolate. There were also shocking allegations that MacMerry failed to adequately deal with claims of sexual assault and harassment against managers and regulars.

One barworker at the chain described how, when his bar reopened after the Covid shutdown, staff were made to work for 14 hours with no breaks. “At the end, we got together and said to the manager we understand it’s the launch but in future we need to make sure we get a break. He said to just make sure we eat before our shift.” The same worker also raised the alarm that employees were not being given the legally required 11 hours break between the end of one shift and the start of the next. However, when he complained, management responded by cutting his weekly hours from 50 to 30, seemingly as a punishment.

The grievance came about as MacMerry workers shared their frustrations with each other across multiple locations using WhatsApp groups. They organised a campaign to support the grievance with Unite’s Hospitality Branch – it included lively pickets and protests outside the venues as well as letters to MSPs. The workers also made good use of social media; their grievance document received widespread press attention, which forced management reluctantly to meet with Unite and to agree to undertake a full investigation into the allegations. However, the grievance is ongoing. At the time of going to press, one of the union leaders was suspended the day after a negative article was published about the company’s treatment of staff.

Bryan Simpson of Unite Hospitality, said: “More than five weeks after directors were made aware of serious issues in a collective grievance signed by 60% of all staff, many of our members across MacMerry and Abandon Ship bars are still owed thousands in unpaid pensions contributions, along with holiday pay and tax. Despite repeated requests for meetings to commence collective bargaining discussions, the company continues to refuse to engage with the union, which represents more than 50% of staff. Unfortunately, this means we will have to proceed with compulsory recognition imposed by the Central Arbitration Committee.”

Since the MacMerry dispute began, hospitality reps from across Unite have met up in a combine to discuss how to strategically coordinate organising resources to drive up standards in this low paid and precarious sector.

Why launch a collective grievance?

Supporting and representing members through individual disciplinary and grievance procedures is a core function of a union rep, and many people join a union to get this type of support. But, as reps know, the process of pursuing a grievance can be isolating and stressful for the individuals involved. In contrast, when workers take collective action it can help foster mutual support and solidarity, raise morale and create a sense of empowerment. For this reason, it may be worth raising a collective grievance if a particular issue is shared by a group of workers.

TUC guidance says that tackling issues collectively can:

• help build stronger union organisation in the workplace;

• help demonstrate the union’s effectiveness;

• involve a wider range of members in union activities;

• lead to new agreements or policies, once reps tell managers that more members support a grievance;

• ensure a wider number of individuals benefit from improved conditions; and

• use union resources more efficiently, by reducing time spent in multiple individual grievance or disciplinary hearings.

Strength in numbers

Workers in insecure employment, such as agency workers, those on zero hour or other casual contracts, and young workers, are often particularly reluctant to complain about any issues as individuals because of fear of retaliation such as losing jobs or shifts. In these cases, a collective approach can be the best way to tackle recurring problems.

The Universities and Colleges union (UCU) says that: “collective grievances are particularly useful in fighting aspects of casualisation, as staff on casualised contacts often feel vulnerable and may be unwilling to take action alone.” It offers the example of two further education colleges that used the procedure to win agreements to move staff on casualised contracts onto permanent part-time or full-time contracts with the same terms and conditions enjoyed by other members of staff.

Improving conditions for all

Tackling issues collectively can also ensure that issues like “presenteeism”, where workers feel obliged to show up for work despite being ill and not “productive”, or sickness absence, are properly regarded as collective, organisational issues, to be tackled through a joint reappraisal of working practices and working culture, as opposed to matters of individual responsibility or fault.

Raising grievances collectively can improve conditions for all staff. For example, one branch of the PCS public services union was able to secure redundancy pay for trainees despite the employer originally saying they were excluded from the redundancy scheme. It was only when the workplace rep issued grievances on behalf of a handful of members that the employer agreed to change its policy.

Also, a collective grievance can ensure a new policy is enforced, as many employers are reluctant to make widespread changes after an individual grievance has been upheld.

Collective grievances during the pandemic

During the pandemic, collective grievance has been an effective way of highlighting employers’ failings in health and safety, pushing for wholesale changes to protect staff and ensuring workers are willing and ready to take further action.

For example, back during the height of the second Covid-19 wave, NEU education union members at Kingsway Primary School in Wallasey became concerned about a number of health and safety issues, including a lack of adequate running water, problems relating to clinically extremely vulnerable staff and a failure to consult on risk assessments. After surveying members, the union got agreement to submit a collective grievance. Later, when the problems were not resolved adequately by management, they voted 85% in favour of taking industrial action. Ultimately, an agreement was reached just one day before a planned strike was due to take place.

Similarly, collective grievances were submitted in food processing plants, many of which suffered outbreaks of Covid. When cases of the illness at the Bakkavor Tilmanstone Salads site in Kent started to skyrocket and hundreds of its 800 staff were forced to self-isolate, the GMB general union lodged a formal collective grievance on behalf of its members. The union’s demands were clear: it wanted Bakkavor to carry out a deep clean, offer mass testing and full pay for all Covid-related absences. Facing the threat of further collective action, and negative attention after two workers died during the outbreaks, the management agreed to all GMB’s demands.

How to identify shared issues

Collective grievances can be used to enforce contractual or other legal rights, to get the employer to comply with an agreed procedure or as a method of addressing some sort of injustice in the employment relationship or culture, as long as this impacts upon an identifiable group of workers. Examples include stress, workload, a bullying management, physical working conditions, or a failure to meet agreed-upon obligations.

Getting to know your branch and keeping in contact with members helps reps to identify what the common issues are. When dealing with any individual grievance it is important to consider whether other members have already raised similar complaints. If so, it may be that raising the issue via formal collective negotiations, a workplace campaign or a collective grievance, is a more effective way of tackling the concern. Where there is also a strong legal case behind the collective grievance it will be harder for the employer to ignore and there will be the option of taking the matter forward to the employment tribunal if the collective grievance is not successful.

Individual disciplinary processes can also be escalated up to a collective grievance if there is a perceived injustice in the way management is initiating them and it affects more than one member.

The TUC advises reps to consider whether the disciplinary:

• is a one-off case or part of a pattern. Could this be the result of poor performance management, lack of management training, bullying, or workload issues?

• Is aimed at certain types of worker more than others, for example, those from minority ethnic groups or trade union reps.

Information collected from other members might support the case for a revised policy to manage a particular issue.

A collective grievance as an organising tool

It is also possible to be proactive in the search for collective issues to campaign around in order to organise, build the union and recruit new members. The CWU communications union advises basing campaigns around issues relevant to a significant number of workers either across the whole workplace or in particular areas. “If we choose issues that are important to people, we will increase our chances of helping them to overcome any apathy or fear and getting them to join the union and get involved. It is important to remember that this can be a local issue or a national CWU campaign” the union says.

The widely felt, deeply felt, winnable and visible test can help reps choose the right issues:

• Widely felt – does the issue affect enough of the workers – either across the whole workplace or those in a particular group or department?

• Deeply felt – are the workers affected sufficiently angry or concerned about an issue to want to do something about it?

• Winnable – is there a realistic chance of achieving something in relation to the issue via the campaign – for example, getting a proposal reversed or amended?

• Visible – will taking on the issue raise the profile of the union in the workplace and allow members to take part in the campaign?

Preventing the introduction of a two-tier workforce by stealth

A Unite shop steward in the energy sector had recent success with a collective grievance that had the potential to be backed up by a legal claim. He and his members found out that new starters were being given a different handbook and believed that management was introducing inferior terms and conditions by stealth and undermining their collective agreement. The branch decided to collectively challenge management on this issue on the grounds that the handbook constituted part of their contracts of employment, as well as their collective agreement, and therefore cannot be changed without consultation.

The workplace has a collective grievance policy which escalates collective grievances from local level to central HR. When the steward submitted the collective letter stating: “We believe that the issuing of the ‘new’ contract of employment is an attempt by the company to ‘ride roughshod’ over long-established agreements with the union, and is a clear breach of agreement, and should be righted immediately”, it got sent beyond their immediate employer to the main parent company, which, fearing further action, agreed to revert to the agreed terms. The steward said “several successes over the years with grievances have given members increased confidence in the role of the union in the workplace”.

A similar example comes from Raffiq, a Unite steward in a printing and packaging firm. When his company was taken over by US giant Westrock in 2017, he and fellow reps started to notice that new starters were being given contracts with some clauses removed or altered, during routine checks of terms and conditions. The changes were particularly alarming because they removed the sections that said workers were covered by collective agreements and bargaining. As a response, the convenor raised the issue during a rep combine from across the company’s 14 UK worksites and surveyed how widespread the issue was.

Armed with their evidence, the convenors delivered a collective grievance to management and they agreed to a hearing involving a Europe-level manager and HR director. After conducting their own investigations, management agreed that there were errors in the contract, and blamed mistakes at local HR level and the takeover for the problem. They agreed to rectify the situation by working with the union on a standardised contract that will cover all workers in the UK and confirm them as members of a bargaining unit. Giving advice to others wanting to follow a similar process, Raffiq said: “Never bin anything! We couldn’t have won without keeping proper records of everything we did.”

Winning a grievance on new technology

Another successful collective grievance morphed into a campaign to push back against the introduction of new technology: telematics “black boxes” in the cabs of company vehicles.

According to a Unite steward in the chemicals sector, the process started with collecting data and surveying members to identify the depth of feeling around the technology: “We collated information on how many employees were impacted by the introduction of telematics and identifying how many of those were trade union members. We then contacted people impacted to understand their views. We ran a Survey Monkey poll to gather feedback.”

This process showed that the “feelings on telematics were so strong that members didn’t need much convincing to sign the grievance, I literally had people filling my inbox wanting to go to grievance on the issue.” In addition, when the union launched the grievance across the two bargaining groups affected, the members worked together to back up the formal process with further campaign actions. “A number of members refused to drive their vehicles in protest, and those who were due to order new cars held off on placing orders.” This put further pressure on the employer as the leasing company started complaining and sales staff who would ordinarily be on the road remained in their offices.

A key factor in winning the dispute was the submission of a written complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It alleged that the company had attempted to get around workers’ refusal to consent to their data being captured by the boxes by switching the legal basis for processing data under GDPR regulations from “consent” to “legitimate interests”. The steward adds that “A number of staff members also submitted letters withdrawing their consent for processing personal data in relation to company vehicles, mileage and driver licence checks. This meant those processes had to be done manually and this added a lot of extra workload for management to process people’s mileage and to manually carry out driving licence checks”.

The union developed its data argument further by stating that the technology breached the requirements for people to have a right to privacy, as the vehicles were also allowed for personal use and almost all staff used them as the family car. Affected staff in Northern Irish workplaces could also raise security concerns specific to that country. Finally, many members made it clear they were prepared to take strike action over the issue. Despite the company trying to persuade workers with an external telematics expert, the campaign was strong enough to force them to concede and withdraw the policy.

The collective process

Since the Acas Code does not apply to collective grievances, the method for raising collective issues will depend on any workplace agreement or policy in place. Where there is a recognised union, the process should be referred to in the recognition agreement and should be negotiated with management.

A collective issue can either be raised:

• as part of the usual collective bargaining arrangements;

• by drafting one grievance that several members sign; or

• by members submitting individual grievances using the same wording.

UCU says: “If local procedures make provision for collective grievances then these procedures should be followed. If there are no provisions for taking grievances collectively then members can make use of their internal individual grievance procedures but submitting the same grievance, at the same time and requesting that all grievances be heard at the same time.”

Progress in the national collective grievance around term-time pay

There is currently an ongoing collective grievance at the national level by members of the UNISON public services union against local authorities and academy schools that have not paid their skilled support staff properly for years. The workers are on term-time contracts, meaning their pay has to be set by formulas that reduce pay from the full-year rate to a term-time figure. A few years ago, the union carried out investigations into pay being received and realised that workers were not getting their full holiday entitlement, and therefore were being underpaid.

Back in 2018, UNISON successfully took Greenwich Council to court after the grievance was not resolved internally. The council was forced to settle five years’ worth of pay claims for around 5,000 of its term-time only staff and has agreed to change the way their holiday pay is calculated going forward.

UNISON and GMB argued that Greenwich’s formula amounted to:

• unlawful deduction from wages;

• indirect sex discrimination (as this practice affected many more women than men); and

• less favourable treatment under the Part Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations.

In Barnet Council, the UNISON branch is also engaged in trying to get its members from around 52 schools to get behind a grievance claim. Some of the claims would be historic, as local authority schools switched over to a new formula a few years ago, but workers were never compensated for their losses at the time. As this falls outside of the two year limit on “lawful deduction of wages” claims, the campaign is more about making a moral case for repayment. That is not the case in academy schools, however, where staff are still being underpaid. John, the local branch secretary is undertaking the work of getting individual members to fill in case forms and put their names to the grievance. He says “it isn’t easy, many workers are scared and have been told by their schools that they will shed staff if they have to pay out”. But that is not deterring the branch from using the grievance as an organising opportunity, mounting surveys and carrying out Zoom and face-to-face meetings in order to get more staff paid what they are owed.

Fighting unfair dismissal with collective action

Finally, collective action doesn’t always have to involve a shared issue. A well organised display of collective strength is sometimes the only way of securing a just result after an unfair dismissal and in practice may be the only way of securing reinstatement, as opposed to just compensation. A recent example is the case of Tracey Scholes, a bus driver, who was sacked after changes to wing mirror positioning on the bus fleet meant she was considered “too short” to drive. The company, Go North West, failed to make adjustments for her, despite her having given 34 years’ service.

A huge show of solidarity followed from colleagues who had recently been on strike for two and a half months over a “fire and rehire” attempt. There was a rally and thousands signed a petition for her reinstatement and wrote to the company CEO. She was eventually given her job back with no reduction in pay.

• Further advice on collective grievance is available in the LRD booklet Disciplinary and grievance procedures - a guide for union reps (