Unions losing grip despite apparent unrest

From reports in the national press, you could be forgiven for thinking that the bad old days were here again, with unions seemingly calling for strike action every other minute. But, as Alex Blyth reports, while there is certainly some activity, the number of days lost to industrial action have actually gone down

A series of high-profile industrial disputes in the first few months of 2004 have led some to wonder if we are seeing the return of employee unrest.

In mid-February, 85,000 members of the Public and Commercial Service (PCS) union staged a two-day strike following a breakdown in pay negotiations.

The civil servants, primarily dealing with pensions, work at job centres and the Child Support Agency, staged a second two-day strike in mid-April. During this second strike they were joined by around 4,500 prison service employees.

A spokesperson for the PCS, explained the problem: “Pay increases of 3.7 per cent offered by the Treasury would lead to pay cuts in real terms for some members. We spent more than six months negotiating with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), but were making no real progress.”

“The DWP seemed determined to impose pay structures in a very aggressive manner. We’re keen to restore good relations, but need the DWP to move from its entrenched position and work with us to find common ground. So far it just isn’t doing that.”

Rail workers have been threatening to strike, after officials from the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) rejected a 3 per cent pay offer and planned pension changes as part of a deal from Network Rail. And the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has also decided to ask 7,000 workers in Network Rail to vote on striking over similar concerns. The possible strike would be the largest action in the industry for a decade.

Royal Mail staff at Oxford’s main sorting office walked out on 30 March claiming that bosses were not taking allegations of bullying seriously. It lasted around three weeks, involved 400 workers, and resulted in severe delays to more than four million items of post.

Added to this catalogue of unrest, university lecturers have suspended strike action over pay and Land Rover staff agreeing a revised pay offer with bosses after mounting two 24-hour strikes.

However, Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development is adamant that unrest in the first quarter of 2004 is not an indication of a broader breakdown in industrial relations

“The trouble we are seeing is almost all in the public sector,” he said. “That is consistent with recent years and is a result of several factors.

“Private sector unionisation is less than 20 per cent, and it is well over 50 per cent in many parts of the public sector. Our surveys show much less employee satisfaction in the public sector and particularly a very low level of trust of managers.”

Emmott advises departments like the DWP to take people management more seriously and to develop HR strategies that go beyond immediate political initiatives.

And a look at figures from the Office for National Statistics suggests that Emmott is right to play down fears over renewed union militancy.

Figures for 2003 showed a drop of around 60 per cent in the total number of days lost to strikes compared to 2002. In 2003, only 20 days were lost to strike action per 1,000 employees, with the EU average above 100 days.

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