How I made a difference: Industrial relations

I joined Robert Gordon University 11 years ago, when it had a very poor industrial relations profile. Relationships with the trade unions were extremely negative, gave rise to a lot of conflict and confrontation and were really damaging in terms of how the university saw itself developing in the future.

We also had a new principal and vice-chancellor, who was of a similar mind to me. We came up with a long-term strategy to move from an industrial relations environment of confrontation to one that would support the university’s long-term strategic objectives.

The first thing I had to do was build new relations with the four main campus trade unions, and to talk to them about what we wanted for the future. The second was to think about the formal industrial relations infrastructure that we would need to support a new way of working. And the third, of course, was to consider what trade union recognition arrangements we wanted, as this had become blurred.

We set out with a strategy of addressing these issues, recognising that the benefits would be long term rather than quick fixes.

Over a period of three or four years we developed a dialogue with the relevant trade unions at local and national level. We formalised our local bargaining arrangements. We formally recognised fully only one trade union, for our academic staff, but gave partial recognition to three other trade unions.

At the same time, I led a project to look at what immediate changes we could make that would be seen as a demonstration of our intent.

One of the issues that we identified was that 40% of our staff were on fixed-term contracts of one or two years. We knew that we could not expect commitment from either our staff or the trade unions were this to continue, and undertook to make sure that no more than 10% of staff were on fixed-term contracts.

This meant that 30% of our staff now had an environment in which to develop their careers and stabilise their own financial commitments.

There were a number of other effects too. Since completing the strategy in 2003-2004 we have had no locally initiated industrial relations actions. And we have been able to negotiate a new modern academic contract, which had been a source of dispute before. That contract has been resolved on a pan-Scotland basis. I believe that the ability to resolve that locally was a result of the initiatives we took within our industrial relations environment.

David Briggs, HR director, Robert Gordon University

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