Secret Ballots:. Lessons from trade union recognition disputes

Publication Date01 Feb 1980
AuthorTom Kynaston Reeves
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Secret Ballots:
Lessons from
trade union recognition disputes
by Tom Kynaston Reeves
Anglian Regional Management Centre,
North East London Polytechnic
The shortcoming of secret ballots, as with any other kind
of opinion poll, is that people may choose not to believe
them. Indeed, where important industrial relations issues
are at stake, parties to a dispute may go to great lengths
to try and prove the invalidity of an unpalatable result.
Secret ballots have long been advocated as a means of
reforming industrial relations procedures, especially as a
prior condition of striking or introducing a closed shop.
The present Conservative Government, while not ap-
parently intending to make the use of secret ballots
compulsory, certainly wishes to encourage their use, and
proposes to make funds available to trade unions for this
To work successfully, secret ballots depend on all the
parties concerned being willing to accept the outcome of
the ballot as a basis for determining action, and to accept
the procedures used as leading to a valid outcome. In the
absence of these conditions, use of a secret ballot may
hinder rather than help the resolution of a disputed issue,
introducing new sources of dispute centring around the
conduct of the ballot
Obstructions may be put in the way of the ballot being
conducted. For example, a management may prevent all
relevant workers being polled, or a trade union may ad-
vise their members not to take part. If the ballot is
completed, then good reasons may be found for ignoring
the result. Practitioners in the field of employee attitude
surveys will be all too familiar with these hazards.
Ballots on trade union recognition, particularly those
that the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service
(ACAS) has to conduct under the statutory provisions of
the 1975 Employment Protection Act, can prove especi-
ally contentious, and ACAS has on a number of occa-
sions had to justify its balloting procedures in court. If
there is to be growth in the use of secret ballots, the
judgements in some of these court cases could provide
an important reference point for determining future
balloting standards.
Allegations of Partiality
There is at present no widely accepted body of standards
or professional code of practice that can be referred to
in resolving some of the invidious ethical and practical
choices that may have to be made in the course of an
employee survey or ballot. Moreover, it is never difficult
for people to find reasons why things should have been
done differently, and the absence of agreed and accepted
standards can often result in the polling body being
Tom Kynaston Reeves holds dual appointments as Reader in
Management Studies at Anglian Management Centre, North East
London Polytechnic, and as Consultant Director of Business
Decisions Ltd, a commercial research agency.
judged by different standards of conduct to those they
themselves are using.
This is well illustrated by the experience of the Tavis-
tock Institute of Human Relations which was "blacked"
in 1972 by ASTMS for allegedly failing to act indepen-
dently and impartially while investigating support for
collective representation among white collar and man-
agerial staff in ICI [1].
The shortcoming of secret ballots,
as with any kind of opinion
that people may choose not to believe them
Two incidents appear to have triggered ASTMS's
reaction. One was that the Tavistock research team had
allowed ICI, so it was alleged, to second to their team a
consultant selected and paid by ICI, namely Professor
Kenneth Walker, then of the ILO. Allegedly the Tavis-
tock Institute were required by ICI to consult with
Professor Walker at every stage of their inquiry, and to
have him present with them when meeting the trade
unions. This might have been satisfactory had all the
parties understood Professor Walker's role and the
nature of his consultancy contract with ICI. However,
the Tavistock researchers presumably acting in good
faith since after all they too were retained by ICI in-
troduced him at a meeting with trade union officials as
part of their research team, thus implying, so it was
alleged, that his role was more independent than in fact
it was. The second ground on which ASTMS alleged that
the Tavistock team had behaved less than impartially
was that they had made available the results of their
pilot survey, which had fairly accurately predicted the
final result, to the ICI personnel department. It was
claimed that this advance information had given the
company certain advantages, though it is not altogether
clear what these were.
This may seem to some an extreme reaction on the
part of ASTMS. However, such sudden withdrawals of
co-operation by a trade union are not untypical of em-
ployee survey work. Indeed, it is also not uncommon for
managers to attempt to sabotage or otherwise undermine
a survey, perhaps commissioned by someone else in the
organisation, which they fear could produce results
which could be damaging to their own position.
Questioning the researcher's integrity is probably one
of the more common of the tactics that are resorted to
in attempts to discredit a survey. It is rarely sufficient for
Employee Relations 2,2 1980 25

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