Stormy Industrial Seas

I’m just back from the wonderful experience of visiting St Kilda. It was incredible to see a place, to be somewhere, that feels like the edge of the World, and to learn more about the people who lived there, nearly 100 years since they were evacuated. I didn’t expect to return to quite as stormy industrial seas as we found.

Having returned after several (refreshing) days without any mobile signal, WiFi or other communication connection with the outside World, we’ve returned to multiple strikes on the trains and threats of industrial action in a wide range of other places too. 

Which set me thinking…

Transmit or receive?

One of the stories shared during our journey struck a chord with me.  This tale was about a communication issue with a colleague.  My friend, faced with another disagreement, had responded “Are you in receive or transmit mode? Ah, you’re in transmit…”.

And therein lies a key issue.

The starting point in many (arguably all) disputes is often ‘transmit’, a lot of talking. Much of it is posturing or explaining positions to both internal and external audiences.  But there’s not often a lot of listening going on.  While I’ve been predicting increasing industrial unrest for a considerable time, a few of the current disputes are a surprise. 

The Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales having begun a walkout in their dispute with the government over Legal Aid funding (the Government decided not to match independent review recommendations).  Scottish Police Officers have decided to “withdraw all goodwill” after rejecting a £565 flat-rate increase described by the Scottish Police Federation as “derisory”. To be clear, this is the first industrial action by the Police for over 100 years.  If nothing else this demonstrates how ubiquitous has been the prolonged squeeze on public sector pay.

Alongside the high external stakes, there’s also the issue of information flow and accuracy.  Good information flow is crucial to high quality, productive negotiation. Grant Shapps inflated the median pay level of striking rail workers by including the pay of train drivers (who aren’t involved in the RMT action) in the calculation. While this wouldn’t make him the first politician to compare apples with oranges, and whether misinformed or misinforming, such inaccuracy is at best unhelpful and at worst divisive and deeply corrosive as far as trust is concerned.

Increased Business costs + Less Money = Recipe for Conflict!!

It seems clear that more industrial action is likely.  The frustration generated by continuing austerity and perceived lack of gratitude for pandemic efforts by key workers seems to be driving a rising tide of militancy in the public sector. In addition, negative impacts from Brexit (increased time/cost in supply chains, etc.) coupled with rapidly rising inflation will generate higher pay demands throughout the economy. 

Meanwhile, consumer confidence is down. People are spending less, with clear consequences for business incomes. Thus, staff expectations that they’ll be rewarded for going ‘above and beyond’ during the pandemic is hitting a perfect storm of falling business income and a government looking to cut costs to pay for its pandemic expenditure. It is a recipe for conflict.

In this context, a company like PWC offering a 9% pay increase to its staff will undoubtedly increase pressure for more widespread action by employers. That, in turn, will run up against inevitable affordability questions, especially in the public sector.  I’ve been involved in public sector pay negotiations since the early 1990s.  At that time, pay restraint was already operating, enforcing sub-inflation settlements.  Similar, or more stringent, restraint (such as the Austerity policy after 2008’s financial crisis) has been in place ever since. So, after more than 3 decades of real terms pay cuts, pressure from the highest level of inflation for thirty years is being keenly felt.

A Case for External Support?

There’s always been a tendency in UK industrial relations to wait until the argument is in full flight, the sides are in their trenches and tempers are getting frayed before even thinking about getting help.  Once a dispute is in motion, help usually comes in the form of ACAS (or the Labour Relations Agency in Northern Ireland) offering conciliation.  While it’s remarkably effective, it tends to be a recovery process, usually leading to an unhappy compromise for both sides.

A little facilitation earlier in such processes could go a long way.

Better still, all sides could continually work to improve their negotiation skills so making absolute deadlock easier to avoid.  Initially this would involve a greater focus on ‘receive’, genuinely seeking to understand the pressures and needs of the other side.  With industrial action being a costly process for everyone involved, there’s nothing to be lost by taking this approach, and possibly huge amounts to be gained.

Finding our sea legs

Returning to the beginning of this article, by the end of our St Kildan voyage we’d all found our sea legs. The sea was almost as rough. The swell almost as great. But we were all able to deal with it without feeling such ill effects. The same will go for the upcoming stormy industrial seas.   Even where one side has experienced heads, they’re likely to be dealing with inexperience on the other side of the table.  That inexperience can lead to misinterpretation, wrong choices and increased conflict.  On the back of more than a decade of unprecedentedly low levels of industrial disputes, there’s a risk many will struggle because those on both sides of the argument haven’t been here before.

Before, during and since the pandemic started (apparently) to ease, Strathesk helped several organisations to review and update their approach to IR interaction.   With stormy seas ahead, taking measures to limit the seasickness is, from personal experience, an exceptionally sensible thing to do.

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

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