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Strikes – and how to avoid them

by Martin Chalk BALPA General Secretary

Recent headlines included a line that ‘days lost to industrial action in the UK are at their highest levels for over a decade.’ So, who ‘organises’ strikes?

Is it the union leaderships, whipping up discontent? “Where is [Rishi Sunak’s] big effort to mobilise the country against these greedy union extremists?” – Douglas Murray, The Sun, 8 December

Is it exploitative managements, failing to pay suitable respect and reward? “…failure to get pay rising has left millions of households brutally exposed to the cost of living emergency. It’s time to reward work – not wealth.”– Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary.

Rather than seek to find culpability for the current swathe of industrial action cutting across our country, is it not better to ask what can be done to avoid it?

If the industrial relations landscape were to be simplified to four broad groups;

  1. workers,
  1. union negotiators,
  1. management negotiators and
  1. senior management and / or enterprise owners

What are the aims and motivations of each of these groups? How do we construct a system which seeks to incentivise those who negotiate (2 & 3) to find the common ground which those who need to agree it (1 & 4) see as success?  It is often suggested that the role of the teams of negotiators is to discover the overlap between what the enterprise and the members of the union will accept as a successful outcome. The real challenge comes when there appears to be no overlap, this is when the role becomes much harder.

Again though, if society expects the role of the system is to incentivise compromise and reward movement to find or even create that common ground, then we need to examine whether our evolved ‘tort immunity’ based framework, with jeopardy on both sides, is designed to promote success or failure? The UK system is one where strikes are a breach of contract, but that if certain, onerous conditions are fulfilled, both the union and striking workers are afforded limited protections. Consequently, the moment industrial action is seen as likely, both negotiating teams are distracted by the labyrinthine and ill conceived restrictions, the union acting artificially to protect their immunity and the management trying to catch the union out.

Other systems function to incentivise the focus on finding resolution to the issues at stake, not on how the potential strike action can be thwarted or protected. Statutory systems which recognise both the right of workforces to be unionised, represented and to, if absolutely necessary, take a range of industrial action – not just strike action; and management prerogative to run the enterprise to achieve its aims. Both need to be respected to incentivise mature relationships built on compromise and shared values.

The current structure for workplace relations only suits class warfare warriors and exploitative managements, denying society the benefits of greater workplace harmony, improved productivity and higher employment standards enjoyed in similar economies to our own. More government restrictions on unions will not succeed in legislating away worker dissatisfaction.

We need workplace relations placed on a clear, predictable statutory footing, which serves the economy and not political ideologues.