Trade unions are poised to reemerge as a force to be reckoned with from next spring, and employment lawyers are urging employers to be vigilant. Ray Silverstein, head of employment law (London) at solicitors Browne Jacobson, says: "Employers who overlook the comparatively neglected but numerous and important changes made to trade union law do so at their peril." The retail sector is not as intensely unionised as the industrial sector but shopworkers' union Usdaw ­ whose current 315,000 members include 200,000 shopworkers and 100,000 part-timers ­ expects to boost its membership to 330,000 by the end of this year (which includes replacing between 30,000 and 40,000 members lost each year due to high retail staff turnover). An Usdaw spokesman says: "The potential to recruit within the supermarket sector alone is enormous and we're looking to take advantage of more relaxed conditions." Two years ago Tesco forged a closer partnership with Usdaw ­ which now represents 90,000 Tesco staff ­ and Usdaw is actively seeking this type of agreement with other retailers. It's working on establishing a national negotiating agreement with Sainsbury, where it already has recognition ­ though this has to be done on a store by store basis ­ and it wants to expand into other chains such as Safeway and Morrisons. Retailers should also brace themselves for a rise in employment tribunals. Manchester law firm Peninsula says it handled 35% more employment tribunals in 1999 (3,836 cases up to 26 November) than in 1998. The sharpest increases are for breach of contract and the Wages Act, while it anticipates minimum wage claims (24 in 1999) to multiply this year. Retailers should also watch out for stress at work claims, warns Browne Jacobson's Silverstein. He points to Health and Safety Executive figures which say 60% of work absence is stress related, with days lost to companies amounting to £6.4bn, while the TUC has to deal with 15 new stress cases a week. Silverstein says: "Stress will become the industrial injury of the next decade. Retailers should take a close look at their rotas and shift patterns so they can identify and deal with stressful situations at an early stage. If people go off sick and aren't followed up, there's a danger these cases can turn into stress claims where there is no cap on what the compensation could be." {{COVER FEATURE }}