The HR sector is facing a tough few months ahead with the call for strikeaction across the UK threatening to disrupt a range of public services. PaulNelson reportsThe ability of HR professionals to deal with industrial disputes is set tobe put to the test this summer as unions across the UK flex their muscles andthreaten strike action over pay and working conditions. This week, local government unions, including Unison, are expected to rejectthe Employers’ Organisation for Local Government’s offer of a 3 per cent annualpay rise and ballot their members on industrial action. It could lead to the first strike in the sector for more than 20 years andhighlights the changing climate in employment relations, which threatens tolead to a spate of industrial action in the public and private sectors. The CIPD believes one reason for the change is that unions are taking a moreaggressive stance following the end of the Government’s ‘honeymoon period’. Mike Emmott, employee relations’ adviser at the CIPD, said: “Tradeunions think they can gain more from a Labour government. The current situationis a shift in the political climate. Unions feel that they should get somethingback for all the support that they have given the Government.” In some sectors, industrial action has already started to have an impact. The rail industry has suffered severe stoppages to-date, with South WestTrains services crippled on a number of occasions earlier this year until thefirm negotiated a settlement over pay increases with the RMT. But commutermisery is set to continue. Last week, the RMT announced a one-day strike amongits members employed by train operator Silverlink and it is planning to disruptArriva Trains Northern services in May. Both disputes are related to payincreases. And more tube strikes are also threatened, after the RMT rejected LondonUnderground’s latest pay offer. In addition, members of the Communication Workers Union are consideringindustrial action if any of Consignia’s proposed 30,000 job losses arecompulsory. Emmott is confident that HR is equipped to respond to the increasing demandsof industrial relations, but he stressed that times have changed since strikeswere a part of everyday working life in the 1970s and early 80s. “It is no longer about beer and sandwiches and private deals incorners,” he said. “HR has a job to do to make sure that managementmeasures are believable. It must stay cool and be aware of bottom line issues. “HR’s role is advising senior managers about the practical implicationsand not about buying off trouble. It is true there is a generation of HR peoplewho lack first-hand experience of conflict resolution, but I have no doubt thatHR is up to the task. “HR will have dialogue with the unions and will know the businessissues surrounding pay and manpower,” said Emmott. Further evidence of the changing nature of employment relations is providedby an ongoing dispute over job cuts and pay for security guards at ManchesterAirport and a strike over pay by staff at train operator ScotRail. Strike threats have even been made by traditionally moderate teachers’unions over demands for more pay and a 35-hour week. The CBI is concerned about the increase in industrial disputes, but stressedthat the number of strikes is only a fraction of the amount 20 years ago. Katja Klasson, CBI head of employee relations, said: “Some unions areflexing their muscles, but this is not a return to the bad old days. In 1979,there were 29 million days lost due to strikes compared to 499,000 in 2000,although we are concerned by the recent spate of industrial action,” shesaid. Klasson believes that unions which threaten strike action at an early stageare not representing the best interests of their members and risk damagingemployment relations. “A lot of employers will now look at reviewing the avenues they havefor employee involvement,” she said. “Many employers value partnership, but it is important to stress thatthey work best when they are voluntary on both sides. Strikes are not the wayforward.” The increase in strike action is putting pressure on partnership agreementsbetween unions and some employers. Stephen Bevan, director of consultancy at the Work Foundation, explained:”Partnership arrangements are showing the strain because the more grittyissues may not be susceptible to partnership arrangements and when theagreement is not helping to resolve the issue, both sides revert to type.”Bevan said the move to more confrontational employment relations may lead toan increase in demand for industrial relations specialists: “Most HRdepartments have moved away from the traditional industrial relationsspecialist to the subtle difference of employee relations. “Many of the old industrial relations specialists are not in their jobsso HR may have lost the art, mostly because it has not been needed. HR mightsee a growth in this area if the trend continues,” said Bevan. Employers and unions need to make more use of negotiation and arbitrationservices such as ACAS to settle disputes over pay at an early stage beforemembers are balloted for industrial action, according to the EngineeringEmployers’ Federation. “I am a great believer in talking, I am sure a lot of these disputescould be resolved through getting round the table and maybe includingAcas,” said David Yeandle, director of employment policy at the EEF. Increasing strike actionJanuary: South West Trains stationstaff strike over pay increase parity with drivers.February: Manchester Airportsecurity staff strike over job cuts and terms and conditions.March: ScotRail train driversstrike over the annual pay increase. Arriva Trains Northern’s conductors strikeover pay increase parity with drivers.April: Silverlink staff tostrike next week over annual pay increase. Local government unions set toreject pay offer and ballot for industrial action. Comments are closed. HR braces itself for summer of industrial dispute threatsOn 16 Apr 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos.