Train strike shows limits of union partnerships

Few in HR would like to swap places with Beverley Shears right now. As HR
director of South West Trains, she has led the doomed pay negotiations with
rail union RMT which have, so far, led to six days strike action, with more
planned for later this month. Customers, already at their wits end with the
railway service in general, will view SWT managers as equally to blame with the

The media has roundly criticised the company and even sober pundits have
argued that the present crisis is largely the result of poor HR. Lack of
training, poor recruitment practices, misguided remuneration strategy, dreadful
negotiating – you name it, Shears and her colleagues have been accused of it.

How much of this is fair? Shears has told Personnel Today (News, pages 1 and
3) that the company is on schedule on driver recruitment and has not worsened
the industry shortage by poaching staff from other companies. If this is to be
believed, then the real problem is the way the unions have exploited the
disparity between the pay of drivers and other staff, notably guards.

You have to sympathise with Shears’ frustration that the strikes have come
just as the company was about to launch a new set of values and behaviours,
developed with staff. This is a company trying to be cutting-edge in HR, but it
looks more like a throw-back to the 1970s.

Throughout the dispute Shears has offered to go to compulsory arbitration.
This echoes calls made by the Industrial Society for the Government to
introduce independent arbitration in disputes which affect the public.

Against the backdrop of bland union partnership talk at last week’s AnUMan
employee relations conference, the experience of SWT shows that with the best
will in the world, HR cannot always avert strike action – even in the 21st

By Noel O’Reilly

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