HR braces itself for summer of industrial dispute threats

The HR sector is facing a tough few months ahead with the call for strike
action across the UK threatening to disrupt a range of public services. Paul
Nelson reports

The ability of HR professionals to deal with industrial disputes is set to
be put to the test this summer as unions across the UK flex their muscles and
threaten strike action over pay and working conditions.

This week, local government unions, including Unison, are expected to reject
the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government’s offer of a 3 per cent annual
pay rise and ballot their members on industrial action.

It could lead to the first strike in the sector for more than 20 years and
highlights the changing climate in employment relations, which threatens to
lead to a spate of industrial action in the public and private sectors.

The CIPD believes one reason for the change is that unions are taking a more
aggressive stance following the end of the Government’s ‘honeymoon period’.

Mike Emmott, employee relations’ adviser at the CIPD, said: "Trade
unions think they can gain more from a Labour government. The current situation
is a shift in the political climate. Unions feel that they should get something
back for all the support that they have given the Government."

In some sectors, industrial action has already started to have an impact.

The rail industry has suffered severe stoppages to-date, with South West
Trains services crippled on a number of occasions earlier this year until the
firm negotiated a settlement over pay increases with the RMT. But commuter
misery is set to continue. Last week, the RMT announced a one-day strike among
its members employed by train operator Silverlink and it is planning to disrupt
Arriva Trains Northern services in May. Both disputes are related to pay
increases.

And more tube strikes are also threatened, after the RMT rejected London
Underground’s latest pay offer.

In addition, members of the Communication Workers Union are considering
industrial action if any of Consignia’s proposed 30,000 job losses are
compulsory.

Emmott is confident that HR is equipped to respond to the increasing demands
of industrial relations, but he stressed that times have changed since strikes
were a part of everyday working life in the 1970s and early 80s.

"It is no longer about beer and sandwiches and private deals in
corners," he said. "HR has a job to do to make sure that management
measures are believable. It must stay cool and be aware of bottom line issues.

"HR’s role is advising senior managers about the practical implications
and not about buying off trouble. It is true there is a generation of HR people
who lack first-hand experience of conflict resolution, but I have no doubt that
HR is up to the task.

"HR will have dialogue with the unions and will know the business
issues surrounding pay and manpower," said Emmott.

Further evidence of the changing nature of employment relations is provided
by an ongoing dispute over job cuts and pay for security guards at Manchester
Airport and a strike over pay by staff at train operator ScotRail.

Strike threats have even been made by traditionally moderate teachers’
unions over demands for more pay and a 35-hour week.

The CBI is concerned about the increase in industrial disputes, but stressed
that the number of strikes is only a fraction of the amount 20 years ago.

Katja Klasson, CBI head of employee relations, said: "Some unions are
flexing their muscles, but this is not a return to the bad old days. In 1979,
there were 29 million days lost due to strikes compared to 499,000 in 2000,
although we are concerned by the recent spate of industrial action," she
said.

Klasson believes that unions which threaten strike action at an early stage
are not representing the best interests of their members and risk damaging
employment relations.

"A lot of employers will now look at reviewing the avenues they have
for employee involvement," she said.

"Many employers value partnership, but it is important to stress that
they work best when they are voluntary on both sides. Strikes are not the way
forward."

The increase in strike action is putting pressure on partnership agreements
between unions and some employers.

Stephen Bevan, director of consultancy at the Work Foundation, explained:
"Partnership arrangements are showing the strain because the more gritty
issues may not be susceptible to partnership arrangements and when the
agreement is not helping to resolve the issue, both sides revert to type."

Bevan said the move to more confrontational employment relations may lead to
an increase in demand for industrial relations specialists: "Most HR
departments have moved away from the traditional industrial relations
specialist to the subtle difference of employee relations.

"Many of the old industrial relations specialists are not in their jobs
so HR may have lost the art, mostly because it has not been needed. HR might
see a growth in this area if the trend continues," said Bevan.

Employers and unions need to make more use of negotiation and arbitration
services such as ACAS to settle disputes over pay at an early stage before
members are balloted for industrial action, according to the Engineering
Employers’ Federation.

"I am a great believer in talking, I am sure a lot of these disputes
could be resolved through getting round the table and maybe including
Acas," said David Yeandle, director of employment policy at the EEF.

Increasing strike action

January: South West Trains station
staff strike over pay increase parity with drivers.

February: Manchester Airport
security staff strike over job cuts and terms and conditions.

March: ScotRail train drivers
strike over the annual pay increase. Arriva Trains Northern’s conductors strike
over pay increase parity with drivers.

April: Silverlink staff to
strike next week over annual pay increase. Local government unions set to
reject pay offer and ballot for industrial action.

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