Forget a winter of discontent; British commuters who rely on Southern Rail have suffered nearly 10 months of disruption because of industrial action by the RMT and ASLEF unions over safety concerns. With strikes also disrupting operations recently at London Underground, the Post Office and British Airways, People Management spoke to Andy Cook, chief executive of employee relations advisory firm Marshall-James – and former head of HR and group ER at Transport for London – about the prospects for resolution, and how HR should tackle disputes.
What’s causing this recent wave of industrial action?
Most rail unions have a stated policy of trying to get the UK rail system back into public ownership, so the Southern action, in my view, is political. I think the rail drivers are using the safety argument as a smokescreen. A number of safety experts have said the changes that Southern wants to make are perfectly safe, providing certain technologies are put in place, which Southern has said it is prepared to implement. But there is still no give.
Why have some recent industrial disputes taken so long to resolve?
There are some interesting dynamics at work. I’ve seen some scenarios where people can make their money up after going on strike; it causes a backlog, and they are paid overtime to clear it. It is rare – but it does happen.
There is also a lot of peer pressure; it takes bravery to break a strike. It’s not as simple as thinking: ‘I’m feeling the pinch, I need to go back to work.’ You usually find people are willing to take one or two days’ action, and then, if nothing changes, support for the strike can sometimes diminish. We’re not seeing that at the moment.
Will we see incidences of strike action rise in the future?
I think we may see further action because, in the railways for example, it’s a battle over modernisation. Strong unions are protecting their terms, conditions and jobs against changes in technology.
So you end up with groups of people whose jobs may not be required; you could deploy them elsewhere, but it’s difficult to get the unions’ agreement to do that. So you end up overpaying people to do jobs that you could pay someone else less to do. It’s a self-perpetuating problem.
What principles do HR professionals need to bear in mind when faced with industrial action?
How you treat people who aren’t on strike is important: how do you keep them on side? How do you get your message across? I’ve been involved in disputes where communication with supervisors hasn’t been strong enough, and we lost their support. Southern, for instance, needs to be talking to and safeguarding the employees who are working, and making sure they feel protected from disgruntled passengers.
Some HR teams don’t have as much IR experience as they used to. Does that mean employers are no longer on a level playing field with unions?
Where unions are well-established, you will have really good HR people with excellent IR experience. But that experience is harder to come by in large groups of unionised workplaces – such as healthcare or local authorities – that are seeing some strands of work being privatised or outsourced, and you get players coming in from places such as the US. They aren’t used to working in a unionised environment, and they can struggle to get their head around it.
An increasing number of people are moving from unions into employers’ IR roles. I was a full-time union officer before moving into HR, which stood me in really good stead for my future career. There are some places that wouldn’t hire someone with a union background – maybe for legitimate reasons, or maybe because of prejudice. But it gives you access to people with great experience; some of the union people I know who’ve crossed over into management roles are some of the best managers I’ve come across.