A record year for strikes

The Office of National Statistics has recently published its latest figures around industrial disputes, one of the highlights being the record low number of days lost to strikes, with a similar low for other forms of industrial action.  So, does this trumpet the success of the Trade Union Act 2016?  In short, no.

To those of us involved in industrial relations the latest figures are unlikely to come as much of a surprise. The statistics around strikes have been running at record lows for a number of years now. What IS strange is that, unless they have a record of doing so, many employers remain reluctant to engage constructively with unions.  This often seems to their being wedded to views of the role and operation of unions that weren’t even that accurate in the 1970s, from whence they originate.  Indeed, if you genuinely want to communicate with your staff, the structure and training they can gain through a union presence can make the process significantly easier and more efficient.

So why have I attached a picture Charles de Gaulle airport? Well, mainly because French Air Traffic Control is virtually synonymous with “on strike”, and I was drawn to a recent article examining industrial relations in France and how it relates to the UK. An interesting factor in France is that union membership is only around 8%, meaning that it’s really only union representatives who join.  This phenomenon was examined in Economist magazine back in 2014:

…the real source of French union strength today is the statutory powers they enjoy as joint managers, along with business representatives, of the country’s health and social-security system, and as employee representatives in the workplace. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees, union members or not, in firms with over 50 staff on both works councils and separate health-and-safety councils. These must be consulted regularly by bosses on a vast range of detailed managerial decisions. This gives trade unions a daily say in the running of companies across the private sector, which accounts for the real strength of their voice.

So, in effect, people in France don’t join trade unions because they don’t need to, so long as there are enough people willing to act on their behalf.

Returning to the UK, there has been a long-term downward trend in unions taking strikes, one that was well established well before the Trade Union Act 2016 kicked in to make taking industrial action more difficult.  For the last several decades, unions have been adapting to increasingly exacting legal requirements to take industrial action, meaning it is still perplexing why the TUA 2016 was put in place at all (and it remains unclear if it is consistent with human rights legislation which enshrines the right to withdraw labour).  Unions’ main approach has been to become more effective at influencing, better prepared to be persuasive negotiators and of more constructive value to employers that are prepared to engage constructively with them.

I’m currently working with several clients, some of whom face difficulties engaging collectively with their workforce because they lack representative structures, and others that simply want to improve how they interact with their unions to the benefit of everyone in the company.  The common theme is that, if you want to avoid disagreements with your staff, discuss things with them substantively and discuss them early and, ideally, draw out any ideas they can add.  The better people understand the problem, the better they will understand the solution.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this subject, so please leave a comment, but if you’d like to discuss this topic more directly please contact me at malcolm@strathesk.co.uk or give me a call on 07736068787.

 

A Port in a storm…

Forth Rail Bridge from Hawes Pier (small)

So, almost unnoticed behind the stramash of George Osborne’s eighth budget, the Government has been defeated again in the House of Lords over it’s Trade Union Bill.  As before, the headlines are all about the impact on Labour Party funding.  As before, the implications for trade unions and workers’ rights to organise themselves and, in particular, campaign about members’ issues have been largely skimmed over, as has the fact that several unions aren’t even affiliated to the Labour Party in the first place.  There’s more to come on this as there is another day of Review (the line by line consideration of the Bill) in the House of Lords, then the third and final Reading.  All of that against a backdrop of several high profile strikes, most of which look, from the outside, like they could have been avoided.

Neither the BMA nor Junior Doctors in England are renowned as militant types, but they see a compromise to healthcare delivery in the revised contracts they are being offered. Jeremy Hunt’s responses have done little to allay insinuations that the changes are as much politically motivated as financially, but then neither side is indicating much room for manoeuvre so it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a simple end to the situation.  Imposition of the new contracts may solve the short term problem for the Government, but it’s hardly going to encourage newly qualified doctors (or anyone else) to view NHS England as an employer of choice.

Meanwhile, Grangemouth is in the news again, this time with a dispute between Forth Ports and dock workers.  In recent years, Grangemouth has become associated with industrial unrest and high pressure tactics on all sides, largely due to the strikes called against Ineos at the Oil Refinery there in 2008 and 2013 and, while this is a different set of workers and a different employer, the rhetoric from both sides seems woefully familiar.

Having only read about these disputes, and having not been directly involved, it’s always difficult to see the full picture, but the common theme seems to be one side claiming they’ve not been consulted, the other side saying they have and that there aren’t any options but the one being presented.  It’s not always simple to understand the subtle differences between informing people, consulting them or negotiating change with them, but it’s nigh on impossible if sides don’t speak to each other.

As with most disagreements, there is unlikely to be complete truth in either position, but it does seem that the parties involved subscribe to different dictionaries and are therefore working to different definitions of many of the terms they are using. That’s not an uncommon situation but is one that, if not addressed, will damage all parties’ reputations and can only be resolved in the long term by both sides being willing to hang up their boxing gloves and start their relationship again. Working out how things got so bad isn’t easy, but is possible – and would be in the long term interests of any business that wants to develop a genuinely healthy relationship with their staff.  After all, a happy staff is a productive staff within which everyone becomes an advocate for their employer.

There’s a truism that any employer will end up with the unions that they deserve, and that unions will end up with the Management they deserve.  That’s always worth bearing in mind as, when the disputes are over, everyone will still have to work together – and surely it’s better to work somewhere that you can have a polite discussion than one where every minor disagreement becomes a major dispute?