Collective conciliation - resolving workplace disputes
Acas is known for helping trade unions and management of a business or organisation to resolve conflict at work. For over 35 years we have been successfully helping to resolve workplace disputes through our free, impartial, and trusted service called collective conciliation. Conciliation is where a third party, like Acas, helps the parties reach their own agreement and outcome.
The parties involved in a dispute resolve the issues themselves but we help them find common ground and a way forward.
What is conciliation?
- Conciliation has been around since time began in the sense of third parties without a direct interest getting involved to help resolve conflict.
- It was formalised for trade disputes in this country with the setting up of a government conciliation service following the 1896 Conciliation Act.
- Acas was set up to be a service independent of government in 1975.
- Conciliation is not arbitration which is where a third party makes the decision and parties give up the power to settle.
- Arbitrators are usually academics or HR Directors for example.
- The agreement is morally, not legally, binding. We maintain a panel of arbitrators and held over 40 arbitrations last year.
- Mediation is a 'half way house.' The third party will listen and make recommendations. These are quite rare, Acas are involved in one or two collective mediations a year.
- Acas deals with around 1,000 disputes a year through collective conciliation.
- The unions and management decide the outcome, our role is to act as an independent third party to help them reach agreement.
- The main issue disputes centre on is pay, followed by redundancy and recognition.
How does Acas help resolve a dispute?
When we get involved we talk to the parties to identify the issues at the heart of the dispute. Often this isn't the issue originally presented to us but something else. Once we've spoken to the parties we have a better idea of how to bring the parties closer together. This might involve discussing new ideas or even bringing old ideas back to the table. Acas generally gets involved when there is a breakdown.
There are three kinds of breakdown:
- where parties don't agree on the facts - we can clarify matters, ask searching questions, promote understanding
- parties want to settle but they don't how - we can help show how to get out of a certain position, make suggestions which they might not want to do directly as it may imply weakness, offer ideas on what might or might not work
- process deadlock where parties are in boxed off positions facing a war of attrition - parties need somewhere to go and Acas can be that without showing weakness. Often the job is also about saving face and 'building ladders for people to climb down gracefully'.
At what point does Acas step in?
There are several points at which we could normally get involved:
- it can be written into an organisation's internal proceedings. Once an organisation has exhausted these they can go to an independent, external third party like Acas
- the initiative can come from the employer or unions, with which we have a good profile
- we also monitor reports in the media and make contact with the parties ourselves because our experience shows it's important to get involved as early as possible.
And does it work?
We have a success rate of about 90% where parties either settle through us or go back into direct talks.
Our research paper Trade union negotiating officials' use and non-use of Acas conciliation in industrial disputes [677kb] has highlighted that:
- our intervention helped speed up the resolution of the dispute (72% employee representatives and 66% managers
- it brought the two sides closer together (66% employee representatives and 57% managers)
- it helped avoid strike action (66% employee representatives and 52% managers).
Acas has conciliators working across Britain. The Chief Conciliator, Peter Harwood, heads the profession and works on the high-profile, large-scale disputes. Watch Peter Harwood talking about collective conciliation.
Acas research into Collective Conciliation
In 2010, the Labour Research Department (LRD) undertook a comprehensive survey of paid union negotiating officials to understand their experience of disputes and their use (and non-use) of Acas. Two follow-up studies built on this rich source of information in 2011.
In 2012, Acas published an employer-based companion piece to these earlier, trade union-centred studies. The paper presents the findings of a series of qualitative interviews with public sector managers aimed at understanding their experiences of, attitudes towards and approaches to collective dispute resolution. The research is a counterpoint to the earlier studies, which found that negotiators in the public sector are less likely to have used Acas collective conciliation than those in the private sector.
- 2011/12 Acas Collective Conciliation Evaluation [667kb] available to download
- Download the 2012 report on Public sector employers' attitudes to use of Acas collective conciliation [337kb]
- Read the other three papers in this mini-series from our Research papers
- Latest media statements from the Media Centre
John Taylor interviewed by the BBC
Acas Chief Executive, John Taylor and Sarah Veale from the Trade Union Congress talked to BBC journalist, Giles Dilnot about the general principles and methods for resolving disputes. They also spoke about what industrial action, and talks to avert them can achieve.
The interview is available on the BBC website.
The role of Acas in Collective Conciliation
- We don't make a decision about how to resolve a large scale dispute - we help the parties reach their own outcome so each party maintains control of the outcome. We don't impose settlements.
- Coming to us isn't a sign of failure - it's useful to have a third party perspective and someone who can make suggestions where either side aren't able to. Acas has helped over 90 per cent of parties either resolve a dispute or move them towards a resolution in the past year.
- We can get involved at an early stage - you can call on our expertise to help resolve conflict before things get to a formal dispute stage when a strike ballot is called.
- Acas isn't a trade union, we are independent of government. It is a statutory body governed by a Council consisting of the Acas Chair and employer, trade union and independent members.
- We work with the private and public sector whatever their size or sector.
Customer contact for Dispute resolution services
Acas provides collective conciliation, mediation and arbitration for disputes between groups of employees and employers. Let us know how we can help by describing your situation to us.
Sign up for the latest news and notifications from Acas - when registering please specify if you are a Trade Union Official in the primary job function section.