Industrial relations: Are the gloves off?

Will there be a union-led winter of discontent? Mike Berry outlines the main findings of our exclusive survey on the threat of industrial unrest.

Exclusive research by Personnel Today and law firm Eversheds reveals that the threat of industrial action looms large for many UK employers.

The poll of 783 HR professionals, split across the public and private sectors, found that most respondents are concerned about the potential impact of industrial action on their organisations.

Despite levels of industrial unrest and days lost to strike action currently well below their peak during the 1970s, employers are still fearful of the effect a dispute with unions and staff could have on them.

In the past 12 months, several ongoing pay disputes in the public sector, particularly among civil servants, local government workers and teachers, have piled the pressure on employers. And the private sector has also experienced pockets of unrest, with union leaders warning that the industrial relations climate could turn decidedly frosty as the UK slips into recession.

Overall, the research revealed that more than one-third of employers have been affected by strike action in the past year. This unrest has been largely confined to the public sector, with about six in 10 organisations reporting some form of action. Only 9% of private sector companies polled say they were affected by action last year.

More than half of respondents say they are either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ concerned about the impact of industrial action on their organisation. One in 10 claim they have no concerns and, generally, private sector firms are less worried about the threat of industrial action.

The biggest impact of action on their business cited by HR professionals would be the damage to employee relations (cited by 30% of respondents), loss of customers and money (25%), impact on employer brand (16%), and the need to close offices or other locations (15%).

Respondents also listed a range of other more potentially serious consequences of industrial action. In the public sector this includes a detrimental effect on the quality of service provided to vulnerable adults, disruption to the care of patients, and implications for national security.

When asked what sort of action was likely, most say staff working-to-rule would be the most common, followed by employees downing tools and walking out. Other action mentioned included overtime bans, more workplace grievances being filed and supported by union reps, and increased union demands.

Jobs on the line

Looking to the future, a slim majority predict increased workforce unrest as the recession takes hold, with more private firms than public sector employers claiming that industrial action is on the cards. This is perhaps recognition by the HR community that redundancies or restructuring are on the horizon, which is likely to prompt conflict with unions or the wider workforce.

It could also be an acknowledgement that large swathes of the workforce are struggling with the cost of living and facing high energy and food bills, leading to disgruntled employees and demands from unions for bigger pay rises.

Martin Warren, head of the HR group at Eversheds, says levels of industrial unrest last year and into 2008 are rising.

“Together with the credit crunch and a looming recession, these are all strong indicators of increased workforce unrest,” he says. “At times like these, employers need a labour relations strategy that enables the organisation to engage positively and meaningfully with its employees on its own terms, rather than adopting a reactive stance to threats of unrest.”

Pay, unsurprisingly, tops the list of areas of disagreement, followed by rows over flexible working, organisational change, working time, redundancies and pensions.

This reflects the national trend of the past six years – between 2002 and 2007, the majority of working days lost to industrial action related to pay disputes.

Warren says: “While pay is already a particularly difficult matter for the public sector, the survey suggests that it is set to be a more widespread concern in all walks of life. An experienced HR team has a key role to play here, with effective employee relations helping trade unions and employees to understand why such action is necessary and to head off potential disputes.”

Lack of experience

Somewhat worryingly, more than one-third think their HR team doesn’t have enough individuals with industrial relations experience to navigate them through difficult situations.

Furthermore, one in three also have no previous experience of dealing with unions in collective bargaining. This problem was more acute in the private sector, with respondents claiming there is a skills gap in their HR – perhaps because the sector is less unionised than its public counterpart and, therefore, experience of industrial relations is in short supply.

The results support the view of industrial relations expert Andy Cook, that the talent pool of HR professionals with experience in this field is tiny. He warns there is a shortage of practitioners with experience of sitting across the table from a unionist who wants to negotiate hard and, perhaps, fight dirty.

Warren views this result as a concern, given the predictions of increased workforce unrest and apprehension over the impact on any industrial action.

“Many of today’s HR professionals and in-house legal advisers grew up in an age of rapidly developing individual employment rights, and declining trade union power and rights,” he says.

“However, legal changes over the past 10 years have caused a significant reversal of the trend of declining trade union power and rights and some HR and legal departments are struggling to catch up.”

Despite this seemingly gloomy outlook, one ray of light is that more than three-quarters of respondents rate their relationship with their unions or staff reps as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.

And it’s apparent from the survey results that this goodwill is likely to be required by the bucketful as employers continue to chart their way through tough times.

Survey in numbers

  • 34.2% Number of organisations that had industrial action within the past year
  • 4.8% Respondents that rated their relationship with unions or employee representatives as ‘poor’
  • 61% Number who cited pay as the biggest area of disagreement
  • 25.7% Percentage who see an all-out-strike as the most likely form of action
  • 20.1% Number who rate their chief executive’s understanding of industrial relations as ‘excellent’

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