With further strike action planned throughout February and March, the TUC’s Paul Nowak tells Ashleigh Webber that more engagement is needed from the government – and HR professionals need to increase their focus on industrial relations.
Employers in almost every industry have been affected by the current wave of industrial action gripping the UK, whether they have seen their own staff go on strike, or have had employees taking time off because of disruption on the railways or school closures.
According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 843,000 working days lost to labour disputes in December 2022, the highest number since November 2011. This figure is likely to have grown throughout January and February, when further action was staged by thousands more workers including nurses, civil servants, and university staff. Many of these went on strike on a national day of action organised by the TUC on 1 February.
It has been a busy few weeks for Paul Nowak, the TUC’s new general secretary, who took over the reins at the trade union body at the end of 2022 after Frances O’Grady stepped down.
Nowak believes the level of attention given to the strikes has been a reminder of the strength and power trade unions have; something he thinks many HR professionals, and politicians, have forgotten.
“There’s a generation of HR managers for whom industrial relations has not been the top of their list of priorities,” he tells Personnel Today.
“And in the same way that many HR managers have forgotten the art of industrial relations, we’ve got a government that doesn’t understand this at all – this is not their world, as many have come from the private sector where there aren’t big unionised companies.
“Industrial relations went out of fashion about 10-15 years ago. A lot of their priorities were about human resource management, and the days of dealing with unions had long gone, but obviously, the events of the last few months have demonstrated that unions are here and are very much still a part of the workplace.”
This, he suggests, is among the reasons why it seems little progress has been made in resolving these disputes, most of which are centred around union members’ demands for a better pay deal as the cost of living soars.
Nowak has been an active trade unionist since he started working in Asda as a teenager. He has been out on the picket lines hearing about the challenges workers are facing, from cost-of-living concerns to burnout and exhaustion.
Industrial relations went out of fashion about 10-15 years ago. A lot of their priorities were about human resource management, and the days of dealing with unions had long gone”
“I spoke to a group of paramedics in Liverpool and they said that in the past they would have time to go back to the station, debrief and talk through what they’ve seen when responding to an incident, which is really important. But now they’re going straight out to another call and don’t get any downtime at all,” he says.
“We’ve got 300,000 vacancies across health and social care, which have everything to do with the fact that we’ve had a decade or more of underfunding, understaffing and real-terms pay cuts.”
Public sector funding
He is sympathetic to the public sector employers who have had their hands tied when it comes to improving pay. If funding for public services isn’t increased, how are they expected to improve conditions for workers and keep hold of vital staff?
“I spent some time with headteachers in the North East and they know that they’re losing teaching assistants, who are going to work in supermarkets or distribution centres because they can earn more. The funding just isn’t there and the government isn’t helping them,” he says.
“The overriding message we’re seeing from the government is ‘how do we deliver public services as cheaply as possible?’
“We’re now in the midst of another round of austerity, and [the TUC is] concerned about not only what this means for public services, but also for our economy.”
Asked what he thinks is needed to help settle the disputes, Nowak says he would like the government to get around the negotiating table. Currently, he claims, there has been “very little movement” from Westminster, although more progress seen in public sector disputes in Wales and Scotland, and the only talks that have taken place have centred around the remit of pay review bodies for the next pay round.
He says: “The people who have been conspicuous by their absence have been the prime minister and the chancellor. Neither have met with unions once, and we know the key to resolving these disputes will be decisions around funding, which is why it’s important that they’re at the table.
“In the public sector, the key is that the government just has to start negotiating and listening to the concerns of its own workforce. We’ve got a Budget coming up: is the government going to listen to its backbenchers who want tax cuts above all else, or are they going to deliver a plan for public services?”
Action in the private sector
Nowak says there has been some progress in private sector disputes, with companies making one-off payments on top of their normal pay rounds, bringing forward pay negotiations, and putting backdated pay agreements in place, for example.
TUC’s Paul Nowak profile
Paul Nowak joined the GMB union aged 17 when he worked at Asda. He was an agency worker at a BT call centre before working for a bus information line at Cheshire County Council in the late 1990s. Aged 26 he became an organiser for the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU, now part of Unite) before joining the TUC’s staff in 2000. He became regional secretary for the North and then head of organising. In 2013 he was appointed assistant general secretary, and in 2016 deputy general secretary, before taking over as general secretary in January 2023.
Some strikes in the private sector are having the desired effect. After 23 days of strikes by 1,800 bus drivers employed in south and west London, their employer Abellio agreed to an 18% pay increase.
However, the TUC is still concerned about whether workers in the private sector are getting a fair deal, despite employers showing a willingness to be flexible.
“Our message for the private sector is that where companies are doing well – and dividends are rising three times faster than wages – workers expect to see their employer deliver a decent pay rise,” says Nowak.
“FTSE 100 chief executive pay went up 23% last year and 39% the year before – not everybody is living through a cost-of-living crisis.”
Facilitating ‘good’ work
Nowak is concerned that the “good work” agenda has stalled under the current government, and believes that many employers are concerned about there being a “race to the bottom”, where those who treat their employees well are undercut by those that do not give workers a fair deal suffering few consequences as a result.
Our message for the private sector is that where companies are doing well – and dividends are rising three-times faster than wages – workers expect to see their employer deliver a decent pay rise”
“We had the Taylor Review and the government promised us that there’d be an Employment Bill [to address some of the issues it highlighted], but there’s been no sight or sound of it. In the meantime we’ve seen more insecure work and the government has done very little to implement the recommendations around that,” says Nowak, who before becoming a trade union official, had often been employed on temporary and agency contracts.
“We’ve got just under one million people on zero-hours contracts, we’ve seen the rise of other forms of precarious employment like short-hours contracts and bogus self-employment.”
He is also disappointed about the lack of action that has been taken following the mass sacking of 800 P&O Ferries workers last year. He suggests the “fire and rehire” code that was recently produced by the government will do little to deter the unscrupulous practice.
Nowak believes the increased public attention and support for the strikes can only be a good thing – not just for trade unions who are likely to see membership numbers increase if they can demonstrate they achieved a good outcome for workers, but also for overall working conditions in the UK.
His message for employers is as follows: “We want to work with employers. We want the organisations our members are involved in to be successful. There is such a huge shared agenda around productivity, skills, how we’re going to manage the transition to net zero, and how we’re going to manage AI and digitalisation.
“As unions, we need to make sure we deliver on pay and conditions, and we want to make workplaces better places to be. I see employers as part of that conversation.”