Industrial action as we know it was turned on its head last week in scenes which confounded employers as well as employees across the country.
The TUC was condemning the militant lorry drivers picketing the fuel depots. Unbelievably, the CBI mentioned the words “having sympathy” with such action in its statements and the public was largely in step with the actions of the self-employed, non-unionised lorry owners or drivers.
The most telling comments came from union leaders expressing grudging admiration for the way the drivers have organised themselves into what was a highly effective dispute, using a mixture of old-style action and high-tech communications.
Our reports show the impact the fuel crisis has had on services such as the NHS and local government. The actions HR directors have had to take to keep emergency organisations or businesses running has led to some imaginative flexible work practices such as longer shifts and teleworking.
This is exactly what the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry is pushing for. One organisation was saying that people could change their work patterns so, for example, instead of working five half-days they work two-and-a-half fill days to cut journeys. They also set up a helpdesk that staff could call to arrange car pools. If these policies filter through to everyday life at work then the logistical headaches of getting staff to work will have been worth it.
But will this outbreak of old-style industrial relations encourage more people to take action? By coincidence, DTI regulations on balloting came into force yesterday. This raised some fears that if the kind of industrial action over petrol is seen to produce results it could lead to more people wanting to take industrial action. The regulations make it easier for action to be taken.
But as HR director at GNER, Mike Gooddie, points out, companies with enlightened personnel policies that build an environment of trust between employee and employer should have nothing to fear.