There are a number of options available to the government seeking to avoid strikes; however, most are high risk and unlikely to make a good enough impact in the current climate of harsh cuts to public services. For a real, lasting difference in attempting to avoid strike action in the public sector, focus needs to be on building leadership and management skills, and improving communication and consultation.
This is the main message from the CIPD report ‘Developing Positive Employee Relations’ – the latest in the ‘Building Productive Public Sector Workplaces’ series, which help inform the policy debate over public sector reform from CIPD research. The report also highlights the higher stake policy options which the government should consider, in order to protect public services if there is an increase in industrial unrest. These options include completely banning any strike action by employees involved in the essential services.
The paper also puts forward the option to the government to introduce legislation requiring parties in public service disputes to participate in compulsory arbitration before industrial action. Additionally, the report suggests changing balloting requirements so that ballots are counted separately for each employer.
Research from the CIPD’s quarterly Employee Outlook survey is also highlighted in the ‘Developing Positive Employee Relations’ report. It shows low levels of trust toward senior management among public sector employees, as well as over 40% of employees being in favour of banning workers involved in the essential services from striking. It also shows a larger percentage of public sector staff agreeing that most people aren’t willing to lose pay by striking (54%, compared to 47% in the private sector).
CIPD employee relations advisor, Mike Emmott, believes that despite the impact of large changes, a more engaged workforce could be built by sustaining focus on improving the leadership skills of public sector management, by government and public service employers. This would provide meaningful consultation for staff and more effective communication, which would help win employees’ hearts and minds.
Emmott says that “trade unions have the power to disrupt only if employees trust them more than they trust their management. The fundamental need is not to ‘manage the trade unions’; it is to manage the employment relationship and communicate the case for change”.
He adds that it is necessary for the government to consider the available policy options to reduce the risk of public service workers causing damaging and disruptive industrial action. “If the government was forced to go down this route [of banning strike action for those involved in the delivery of essential services] it would be a sign of its failure to make the case for change to public sector employees.”
The government must endeavour to avoid such a situation at all costs, because it would mean that any of their attempts to lead through consensus had failed. The stakes are also high for the unions; if they take industrial action on issues where there isn’t public sympathy the created conditions mean the government are more likely to implement one of the strike avoidance measures outlined in this paper.