Employment

Bosses urged to engage more with unions amid rise in strike action

More than half of the 1,000 bosses and senior HR professionals surveyed by the CIPD agreed the UK is entering a new, more unstable period of employment relations.

A steward for union Unite directs protestors at a rally to protest low pay in London last month

A steward for union Unite directs protestors at a rally to protest low pay in London last month Image: Eliza Pitkin / The Big Issue

Employers have been told they should start engaging more with unions amid a rise in industrial disputes and a growing threat of strike action.

While most employers see unions as providing essential protection for employees from bad management, failing to recognise or engage with them will increasingly become a bad strategy for bosses who want to avoid walkouts, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found. 

Post Office workers are set to stage further 24-hour strikes this week demanding higher pay, while drivers at eight train companies on Monday voted to strike. 

More than half of the 1,000 bosses and senior HR professionals surveyed by the CIPD agreed the UK is entering a new, more unstable period of employment relations.

Competition for workers amid a shortage of labour, combined with a cost of living crisis and falling wages, is fuelling industrial action across the UK this summer, with disputes at their highest point in five years.

The Trade Unions Congress (TUC) logged at least 300 disputes in 12 months to April 2022. Union bosses have warned they could coordinate industrial action to grind the country to a halt in a national strike if employers don’t get around the negotiating table.

This research is “a warning that when you are faced with union requests for recognition, it’s better to engage and try and work with your workforce,” says CIPD employee relations adviser Rachel Suff, who worked on the research. 

“Our research shows that a lot of employers do engage with unions… but that doesn’t mean there is a constructive working partnership across the board.”

“The more you can consult (with employee representatives) the more likely you are to be able to avoid industrial action,” she continued. 

Generally, the survey found employers spoke positively about the climate in their workplaces, with almost nine in 10 describing the relationship between managers and employees as “good”.

But faced with inflation squeezing both the wages of employees and the overheads of companies, four in 10 agreed employers can expect to face increasing levels of industrial action over the next year. 

Coupled with rising inflation, the UK is facing the tightest labour market in 48 years, meaning that there’s “a lot of competition for labour and that can increase bargaining power for working people and the unions representing them.”

Suff emphasises, however, that despite the increasing frequency of industrial action, workers still only go on strike when there are no other ways forward. 

“We did a lot of interviews with trade unions for this research, and what really came across is that they don’t want to take strike action… It means their members lose pay and so on, it really is a last resort.”

In response to the recent three days of rail strikes by members of RMT union, transport secretary Grant Shapps has suggested the government could repeal a legal ban on agency staff filling in for striking workers.

“The country must not continue to be held to ransom,” he told The Telegraph. 

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