HR Austerity Panel: Public sector employees won’t be swept up by union rhetoric

Public sector employees are unlikely to get swept up by union calls for “civil disobedience” in response to spending cuts, but HR leaders need to step up their efforts to ensure relationships with staff are open and effective, according to Personnel Today’s HR Austerity Panel.

At the TUC Congress yesterday, delegates voted to back a motion agreeing on coordinated action if government “attacks” on jobs and pensions go ahead following next month’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

The move – and calls from hardline union leaders for campaigns of civil disobedience – have sparked fears of “another winter of discontent”.

But Graham White, HR director at Westminster City Council, insisted that the majority of public sector staff will not suddenly change their behaviour even when the cuts begin to bite.

“There may be small pockets of unexpected behaviour, but I am confident that many public sector workers are committed to engaging in debate with management to find solutions to these financial challenges and share the responsibility and not just abdicate from it,” he said.

White’s view was echoed by Dean Shoesmith, HR director at Sutton and Merton Councils and president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association.

“It is unlikely moderate employees will be swept up by hardline calls for unlawful action,” he said. “Research by Cardiff University into trades union membership and industrial action shows that since the 1970s there has been a marked swift away from trades union membership and support for any associated strike action given such falling membership numbers.”

Public sector HR departments have a key role in managing relationships with staff and trade unions as the spending cuts begin to hit home, according to Richard Crouch, head of HR at Somerset County Council.

“What will do no one any good at all is to become entrenched into the 1950s style of relations we’ve seen in the past when we have completely opposed sides that become nothing but adversarial,” he said. “What is clear is that we are in this together and its best to get out of it together and this will require active listening on both sides.”

There has been “surprisingly little” industrial action over the cuts that have already taken place in the private sector as employers have managed to convince staff they they are “all in this together”, according to Duncan Brown, director of HR business development at the Institute of Employment Studies.

“But if this sense of mutuality and good purpose is lost then we could see a marked escalation in action,” he warned. “The context this year is also very different to the private sector cuts last year, particularly in terms of higher inflation.”

Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, said the spending cuts represent a chance for public sector HR to make a difference.

“This is a huge opportunity for HR in the public sector to redesign their organisations, align them to customer wants and needs and deal with poor performance and low productivity in a more assertive and consistent manner,” he said.

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