A dispute has broken out between the Royal Albert Hall and the trade union Bectu over the hall’s decision to reject the results of a staff ballot which showed that the majority of those voting wanted workplace union recognition.
The turnout for the ballot was 72.5 per cent of the charity’s workforce of 312, and 52 per cent of those taking part voted in favour of representation by the media and entertainment union.
Chris Cotton, chief executive at the RAH, told staff in a letter last month, seen by Third Sector, that the hall would not give Bectu recognition because a majority of employees who had been eligible to vote had not voted in favour. He pointed out that only 37.5 per cent of all staff had voted for the union to be recognised.
Bectu contends that the RAH had previously told the union there only needed to be a majority vote among those staff that participated in the ballot in order for it to recognise the union.
The dispute comes after 32 members of the charity’s 98-strong front-of-house team, some of whom had worked at the venue for decades, resigned from the RAH in May and June after a change in their contracts stipulated that staff would have to be available to work up to 80 hours a month.
In an email sent in May to Noel McClean, national officer at Bectu, James Ainscough, chief operating officer at the RAH, said that the question of union recognition would "be settled by a majority of those voting". Ainscough added in the email, als seen by Third Sector, that he was anticipating a high turnout among staff.
Responding to Cotton’s letter to staff, Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of Bectu, wrote in a letter to Cotton that "no amount of spin, nuance, or interpretation of other letters… can change this inescapable fact – the Royal Albert Hall agreed the rules and are now seeking to change the rules. Presumably because they didn’t get the result they wanted."
He said Cotton’s letter was a snub to staff at the RAH and to Bectu and that the union had never thought that the "legitimate and democratic vote of Royal Albert Hall staff would be rejected by management". Bectu would do everything in its power, both industrially and politically, he said, to ensure that the voice of staff was heard.
The union also said in a statement that in rejecting the results of the ballot, Cotton had shown a "disregard for the views of his staff and for the standing of Acas", the conciliation service that helped approve the rules of the ballot.
This was made "even more offensive by his plan to set up a staff forum in opposition to staff backing for Bectu recognition", it said.
The union has appealed to Cotton to withdraw his letter to staff and to agree dates for discussions to take forward the ballot result. If Cotton declines to accept the ballot result, Bectu has said it will pursue the matter with the assistance of Acas and the Trades Union Congress.
A spokeswoman for the RAH said that Cotton had made it clear to Bectu that the hall would only accept a deal if a majority of all staff voted for it. This was expressed consistently in communications between the RAH’s management and the union and staff between December 2014 and July 2015, she said. She declined to show these to Third Sector.
Commenting on the email between Ainscough and McClean, which appeared to contradict this, the RAH spokeswoman said: "James' comment to Noel is clearly predicated on there being a high turnout and as such is not a contradiction. When the result of the vote was announced it was clear that there had not been a high turnout."
She said the fact that 28.5 per cent of staff did not vote at all implied, in the hall’s view, that they felt "neither option on the ballot paper was fully appropriate". Thirty-four per cent of staff voted against union recognition, she said.
She said 62.5 per cent of all staff voted against union recognition or did not take part inthe ballot, which unambiguously indicated that Bectu did not have majority support at the hall. The RAH had instead decided to created an "employee forum" as a more unifying way to engage and motivate its workforce.
Commenting on the resignation of 32 staff members in May and June, the spokeswoman said that the RAH had been forced to stop offering its workers casual and low-hours contracts in light of the venue’s growth. "Following a full consultation with the stewarding team we offered all our stewards a range of contract types, and a 19.3 per cent pay increase to £9.15 per hour, equivalent to the London Living Wage," she said.
She added: "We were very sorry that a minority of our stewarding team chose, for their own good reasons, not to take up any of the new contracts on offer. It seems odd that Bectu are attempting to present what are positive developments overall for the hall’s stewards, offering more hours and significantly higher pay, in such a negative light."
Some front-of-house staff at the RAH are understood to be frustrated that their pay will not be reviewed again until the end of 2016. The hall’s spokeswoman said the front-of-house workers received a salary review in August 2015 and that their next pay review would coincide with that of the rest of the hall.