Research reveals changes in employee relations

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK released a report in November 2012 on employee relations and how they have been affected by the recession. The report highlights the long term move towards individual employee negotiations, but also shows that employers remain committed to collective consultation where unions are recognised. While industrial action in the form of strikes has declined, other forms of workplace conflict have increased.

About the research

New research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), entitle Managing employee relations in difficult times, identifies contemporary trends in people management in the UK. One of the key changes is the increased focus on the individual employment relationship, rather than dealing with groups of employees and their trade unions. The research looks at the ways employers and unions are engaging, and the less visible ways that unions retain influence in an era of declining strike action.

Collective and individual engagement

CIPD research published in November 2012 shows that employers have not abandoned or downgraded employee consultation measures in response to recession, as they did in the late 1970s. Where trade unions were recognised, employers continued to take part in collective consultation and were not reducing the use of collective processes.

Most employers involved with the survey recognised at least one trade union, and the relationship was strongest when union density was high. Despite the continued reliance on collective consultation, there has been a growth in direct communication with employees. However, managers surveyed believed that this was a long term trend and not related to the more recent economic downturn.

Employers say they increasingly rely on direct communication with employees. The report concluded that employers see individual relationships between managers and employees as most important, although they accept that there is a role for trade unions. While union influence is a ‘daily reality’ for some, it is in decline across the wider economy.

Industrial action

The report contradicted headlines that claim industrial action is increasingly common in the UK. The number of days lost to industrial action in 2011, says the report, was exceptionally high, but 90% of those lost days were accounted for in the single national day of action sponsored by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in November 2011. The report suggests that the long-term trend is towards declining industrial action, and that most industrial action has been confined to the public sector which accounted for 92% of all days lost.

The study included few employers affected by industrial action, and those that were affected did not view it as a serious problem. Indeed, for much of the last two decades, fewer than a million days have been lost annually to strike action, compared with 131 million days lost to sickness absence in 2011.

Alternative forms of conflict

While industrial action has declined, the report did not highlight a decline in conflict at work. Rather it suggested that forms of conflict had simply become more varied.

The report identified a range of alternatives to strike action used by unions. While ballots for industrial action led to only 149 work stoppages, there were a total of 1,000 ballots in 2011. The authors suggest that ballots themselves may be used to prompt changes in management behaviour.

There has also been an increase in the use of street demonstrations, with unions using alliances with non-governmental organisations to pursue their political objectives at national level.

Finally, there has been an increase in the use of consumer campaigning and threats to damage employer’s reputation. Protests around spending cuts in the public sector have drawn in service user groups as well as employees. Unions have initiated boycotts of global brands such as Nike to protest employment conditions within the supply chain. The living wage campaign in London which seeks to establish a minimum wage of GBP 8.30 an hour (€9.70 as of January 30, 2013) has engaged with a range of civil and religious organisations. It has claimed notable successes for 10,000 workers with employers such as accountancy firm KPMG and banking giant Barclays, though it has made little progress in the food and hospitality sectors.

The report concludes that these kinds of conflict are much more subtle and likely to be less costly for employers than strike action.

Sophie Gamwell, University of Warwick

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