Organisations ignore threats of strike action at their peril

With the apparent resurgence of industrial action battles, HR professionals
need to ensure their negotiation skills are up to scratch

The grizzled veterans of the unions’ seemingly non-stop battle against the
bosses in the late 1970s and early 80s must be feeling a warm glow right now:
are the ‘good times’ returning?

Left-leaning Derek Simpson is the new general secretary of Amicus-AEEU; the
RMT’s Bob Crow and ASLEF’s Mick Rix are head-to-head with London Underground;
and the Fire Brigade’s union boss, Andy Gilchrist, while hardly a class
warrior, is challenging the Government to dust off its Green Goddesses. In
short, the unions are on a roll.

The rights and wrongs of the current crop of labour disputes are for others
to argue. But what no one would deny is that the unions are taking centre stage
after a long period of comparative silence. And this resurgence requires an
appropriate response from employers.

By response, I don’t mean the old ‘them against us’ confrontation – today’s
union leaders are constrained by legislation which has effectively killed off
the ‘Red Robbo’ approach to solving labour disputes.

For the past 15 years, the huge majority of organisations have not required
the strong negotiation skills of an industrial relations (IR) specialist within
their HR division. But all that is changing. Individuals with IR expertise are
now very much in demand. The worry is that today’s HR professionals don’t have
the experience of negotiating with unions, while many unions, including Amicus
and CWU, have developed training colleges for their officials and representatives
and improved their skills.

If the threat of industrial action does mature, the credibility of HR could
be called into question if the skills needed to tackle strike action are
missing. HR should not take its responsibility lightly – a breakdown in
negotiations can be devastating for an organisation, both in financial terms,
but also in respect of the resentment.

The skills necessary for IR can be learned or developed. HR professionals
can attend negotiation-training workshops and learn about IR at a variety of
academic institutions, but there is nothing like real-life negotiation
experience – the experience that was honed by HR professionals during the 70s
and early 80s.

Many of those HR professionals with experience of tough bargaining during
the 80s are now in senior positions, often board level HR roles. The experience
and training they developed has stood them in good stead for their career.

Many unions now offer joint training for HR professionals and union
officials on how to avoid confrontation around a boardroom table. However, a
real relationship should extend far beyond this.

Late-night manoeuvres in smoke-filled rooms should be the stuff of history.
To be truly effective, HR professionals need to develop a strong and trusting
relationships. They should be able to pick up the phone at any time to discuss
proposals rather than wait for the ‘crunch’ meeting.

These relationships should extend beyond the office environs. Historically,
much of the relationship building with the union officials is not done during
office hours but socially. During recent interviews to recruit industrial
relations and employee relations experts, Penna Consulting interviewed many
professionals who placed great value in a pint down the pub to build better

A new militancy could develop with a younger generation of radical union
leaders coming through, who are not afraid to speak up, when necessary, to
those in authority. They have few memories of the 1979 Winter of Discontent
that ushered in the Thatcher years.

If this translates into the hard threat of strike action, IR expertise will
be critical and companies that ignore it will suffer.

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