The unions are claiming that the current campaign of industrial action regarding public sector pensions could be the biggest strike since the general strike of 1926 (Personnel Today, 4 April). Is this a milestone to be proud of, or does it give a good indication that pensions remain the only issue that will unite trade unionists across the UK?
Over the past 15 years, pension reforms in the private sector have been common. Employers and workers faced the equalisation of retirement ages for men and women as a result of the Barber judgment in the 1990s. In recent years, we have seen a combination of the closure of many final salary schemes and increases to employee pension contributions. And now public sector pensions have been hit by changes.
This current issue regarding scrapping the ‘rule of 85’ will challenge the government’s desire for pension reform. It will also test its relationships with trade unions and its appetite for the fight.
The government says that people are living longer and therefore the public sector pensions burden is just too great – change is needed now. The unions say ‘hands off’ – it is unfair to change the scheme for current employees as they are being penalised.
I am sure the unions will bring as many UK workers into this issue as possible, as public sector pensions reform and the closure of final salary schemes in the private sector provide much common ground.
Based on internal politics and the desire of their leaders for media coverage, the big test will be whether the unions can work together. There are several very outspoken union leaders in the UK at the moment, each of whom may well jostle for the limelight to enhance their own profile and reputation.
The internal dynamics of individual unions will undoubtedly come into play. In most, there is a split between moderate thinkers and traditionalists. The latter may see this current battle as a class struggle and will want to seize the opportunity to push that line. The more moderate thinkers may want to find a resolution while still protecting the interests of their members, leaving the politics to one side.
The local government dispute is very frustrating for the HR departments involved as this is a national issue, and the government holds the cards. There is no scope for local negotiations on pensions and so, in effect, there is nothing that can be done locally to resolve this dispute.
Undoubtedly, communications will be key. In this type of situation, I would expect the unions to be effective at getting messages to their members. Very often, employees only get to hear one point of view – the union’s. This is why having a top-notch communications plan is vital as management must be able to get their messages out quickly and effectively. As long as the messages are factual and easy to understand, then workers can make up their own minds.
Management can sometimes be reluctant to communicate with employees, either during a dispute, during change or in business-as-usual situations. In some highly unionised environments, the workers will expect all communications to come through the unions, while management is almost prevented from speaking directly to their employees. That is a recipe for disaster.
HR has a big role to play in communications strategy, whether it has ultimate responsibility for it or not.
I hope someone involved centrally in the local government dispute has thought this through. They need to provide local HR departments with the right messages to communicate to staff, or run a communications strategy centrally. If not, there is no hope of winning hearts and minds. Meanwhile, the unions will continue to vocalise their side of the story – which may not always be balanced.
Andy Cook, managing director, Marshall-James.net