Employers face one in five chance of a dispute

HR practitioners predict a one in five chance that their organisation will be involved in a collective dispute with their workforce over the next 12 months, according to research by Personnel Today’s sister publication, Employment Review.

The survey of 188 organisations, which together have more than 785,000 employees, asked respondents to estimate the likelihood that they would be involved in a strike or some other collective dispute. Overall, respondents put the chances of a dispute at 19%. But this varied according to the size of organisation and its economic sector.

Private sector companies providing services put their chances of a dispute lowest – averaging just 8%. This rose to 21% among manufacturers, and to 36% among respondents in public sector organisations.

By size of organisation, those with fewer than 250 employees believed there was just a 7% chance of a collective dispute. This rose to 15% of organisations with between 250 and 999 employees, and to 31% for those with 1,000 or more.

Although industrial militancy is at an all time low, with fewer days lost to strikes in 2006 than in any year since records began in 1891, official figures do not reflect collective disputes that are resolved through negotiation or lesser forms of industrial action.

Figures on collective disputes also fail to reflect ‘unorganised conflict’ in the workplace, where low-level disputes, often in non-union environments, are reflected in higher levels of absence or employment tribunal claims.

Pay is top of the flashpoint league table

Pay is the most likely flashpoint for collective employment disputes in the year ahead, the Employment Review survey reveals. More than four out of 10 (43%) of employers believe that if there is a collective dispute at their organisation, it will be over general pay issues. This rises to 53% among public sector organisations and to 62% among manufacturers.

Most manufacturers foresee little chance of a dispute over other issues. But they are more likely than employers in other sectors to see training and development (12%) or health and safety (3.8%) as possible problem areas.

Public sector employers foresee changes in working practices (40%), restructuring (36%) and redundancy (20%) as potential flashpoints – reflecting organisational change in the public services.

But high levels of concern about pensions in the public sector appear to have abated. Previous Employment Review studies found half of public sector employers predicting a dispute on this issue in 2005 and 2006. This year, that figure has fallen to just 9%.

Private sector services firms, meanwhile, are relaxed about the chances of a dispute, with 43% saying that none of the possible problem areas is likely to affect them.

Employers negotiate with unions about most issues

The most contentious issues are also those on which employers are most likely to negotiate with a trade union, according to the Employment Review. In all, 56% of survey respondents recognised one or more trade unions. This ranged from 27% in private sector services to 70% among manufacturers and 96% of public sector organisations.

Pay is the most commonly negotiated area with 100% of manufacturers and 91% of private sector services. However, public sector pay deals are usually agreed at national level.

Manufacturers also commonly negotiate over working hours (91%), changes in working practices (91%), and redundancies (83%). Public sector employers negotiate over changes in working practices (94%), and annual leave (81%).

Although private sector services firms often negotiate over redundancies (82%), they are far less likely to negotiate over annual leave (50%), working hours (46%), or training (5%).

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