The threat of strikes at Royal Mail and the recent Grangemouth saga have been wake up calls for both employers and unions. Chris Evans assesses the importance of dialogue between the two, and how managers should prevent and handle strike action
The landscape of strike action has changed considerably over the past 40 years. This is proven in the figures, which show that 90% of industrial disputes are resolved before they reach strike action, and the average days lost to strikes per year is just 1 million, compared with 13 million in the 1970s, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). But more importantly, the attitude towards strikes and the power struggles between the parties involved have changed.
Grangemouth was a perfect example of how union action can potentially back fire within a multi-national organisation. The bitter dispute between Ineos, owners of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant, and the Unite union began over the alleged mistreatment of a Unite official and escalated to the threat of strike action. The dispute was eventually resolved by Ineos founder and chairman Jim Ratcliffe potentially shutting the whole plant down with the loss of 800 jobs, forcing Unite to accept Ineos’s conditions.
“The threat of closure to the whole plant was a huge smack in the face for the union, who had to run back to the table to discuss terms. But this is indicative of the problems unions face when negotiating with global organisations,” says Kim Chalk, an HR manager at Wells & Co, who has consulted British Airways in the past, and is currently assisting with a National Rail bid.
What may seem like a local workers dispute is inevitably going to impact owners, employers and employees in other countries as well. Holding a whole business to ransom is a costly and complicated process. But that’s not to say that unions always have their hands tied or that employers have the upper hand.
Unions are often aware of the potential disputes and disruptions caused by strikes and are therefore more sophisticated about testing opinions first, especially through ballots to gauge approval levels. They also have several modern methods, for example on Twitter, Facebook and blogging, to establish the mood about a particular issue.
“Strike ballots and social media are valuable tools in the armoury during negotiations because the unions have direct proof and figures to prove there is genuine frustration among employees, and that employers need to do more,” insists Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC, which represents the majority of unions.
Employers, in turn, can and should have appropriate ways of dealing with any conflict of interest, whether it’s over pay, pensions, bullying, or unsafe working conditions. It stands to reason that a good manager will respect his or her employees, show understanding and compassion, and have an open dialogue about any important changes that are taking place in the business that will have an impact on working conditions.
If conflicts do arise, the differences between large and smaller organisations often become apparent. Within global organisations, there is almost always a solid grievance and disciplinary process, and a team of middle managers upwards who have had training in how to handle disputes, appeal hearings and the like. But for the smaller companies, it is the senior managers themselves who often have to handle employee strife.
“In those circumstances, it is vital that the manager is prepped beforehand about what to expect and what could happen in discussions with employees and/or union members,” says Chalk. “They need to listen carefully and not go in with pre-judged conclusions.”
A common source of advice from employee relations consultants is for managers to approach a potential strike as more of a problem to be solved than a battle to be won. Ensuring there is an agreed course of action is also important, as opposed to making up rules at a time of heat and conflict.
Utility companies are especially good at this, setting out protocol at a time of dispute. This includes holding talks with the unions and preparing cover for vital services. “The unions and water companies don’t want supplies to be shut off, so they have a mature arrangement for industrial action,” says Veale. “This can also be applied to non-essential sectors. Instead of discussions taking place after the Unions have fired their guns for a strike, it is better that talks are held first to try and cool things off."
One potential mistake that larger companies can make is to bring in outside lawyers from the outset when a dispute arises. “They’ll look at the whole thing as a piece of law, hypothesise what the unions are going to do to a ridiculous degree, won’t really understand the human side, and possibly terrify the employer into taking pre-emptive action that exacerbates matters,” warns Veale.
If a strike does go ahead, however, lawyers could prove valuable when it comes to legal requirements because it is important employers know where they stand. There are simple things to know like employees on strike don’t need to be paid, and it is advisable not to take disciplinary action against those who do not attend work. But also employers considering closing down for the day need to be wary that there could be employees ready and willing to attend work, and in the absence of a clearly worded contractual lay-off clause, they would be obliged to pay the employees. It is also important to note that there is no legal requirement on an employee to confirm in advance whether they will be attending or striking.
“During the strike, employers need to stay cool and not be provocative with Union members,” insists Mike Emmott, Employee Relations Adviser at the CIPD. “Dialogue with in-house union reps is recommended, as is making sure non-union members are made to feel comfortable. Let them know how to negotiate picket lines and make sure they don’t feel like they’re letting anyone down.”
For private businesses, Veale also recommends that managers speak to members of staff with public sector experience who’ve handled strike action in the past. The same goes for private sector businesses that acquire publicly run organisations, which is particularly relevant at the moment with the government selling off several rail lines.
“Companies often bid for public sector contracts and have no idea what they’re taking on. They inherit Tupe laws, a union rep or two, and they can sometimes get confrontational or try to go around them. This is when conversations with public sector people in the know can prove invaluable,” says Veale.
Fortunately for employers, the large majority of strikes these days are over quickly. They tend to be symbolic gestures, as opposed to long, drawn out protests as they were in the 1970s. But handling the workforce after a strike can still be just as difficult and crucial.
The outcome is obviously a major factor. People join and leave Unions because of strikes and how they’re handled. Again, it is the job of the managers to ensure that members and non-members are happy with the outcome, while Emmott believes “the least said; the better mended.”
If company managers are ever in doubt about what to do at any stage, they can always call on external mediators, or in-house HR staff, who will have a better grasp of how to diffuse employee conflicts, and can see things from both sides. “We might not be able to stop strikes, but we can provide advice and support, and make sure people practices are water tight,” concludes Chalk.