Survey finds increased tensions in employment relations

With much speculation in the UK about possible widespread strikes in opposition to Government policies, a survey published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in April 2011 finds a general deterioration in management-union relations, particularly in the public sector, as spending cuts start to bite. It also concludes that events in the next 18 months will show if the unions still have the power to influence public opinion and Government policies.

Strikes predicted

Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government took office in May 2010 (UK1005019I), there have been numerous predictions that its policies will result in widespread industrial action, especially in the public sector, where the government has cut jobs, frozen pay and announced far-reaching changes to pensions (UK1103019I). According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), however, only 365,000 working days were lost to labour disputes in 2010, the lowest figure since 2005. Days lost in the public sector were also at their lowest for five years. The early months of 2011 saw very few strikes.

Threats of public sector protest strikes are again mounting in May 2011 (for example, teachers’ unions are balloting over a one-day strike over pensions to take place in June). In this context, a survey of employment relations conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in March sheds some light on the likelihood of significant strikes in the coming months. The survey received responses from 371 human resources practitioners (35% in the public sector) and the CIPD published its findings on employment relations (211Kb PDF) on 4 April 2011. The CIPD last carried out a similar survey in the summer of 2008.

Key survey findings

Of organisations surveyed, 60% recognised unions. Of these, 55% described their relations with unions as positive or very positive, 30% as neither positive nor negative and 15% as negative or very negative. Thus, while the CIPD describes management-union relations as ‘generally positive’, it notes that the proportion of respondents describing relations as positive has fallen from 65% in 2008, while the proportion describing them as negative has risen from 9%. Only 50% of public sector respondents described relations as positive in 2011 and 21% as negative, compared with 66% and 11% respectively in 2008.

Of respondents that recognise unions, 36% said the management-union relationship had changed in the past year, rising to 43% in the public sector. Of the organisations where relations had changed, 76% reported that they had become more negative, with a figure of 81% in the public sector.

Thirty per cent of respondents (40% in the public sector), reported a current dispute with a union that could escalate to a ballot on industrial action, while 4% (8% in the public sector) reported that a ballot was taking place or about to take place, and 1% that strike action was likely to follow a successful ballot. A third of employers that recognise unions believed that their employees were likely to strike in the next year (31% in 2008), with a figure of 49% in the public sector (51% in 2008). The issues seen as most likely to spark industrial action were:

  • pay, identified by 44% of the relevant respondents;
  • redundancy, identified by 36% of the relevant respondents;
  • pensions, identified by 33% of the relevant respondents.

These figures rose to 50%, 57% and 52% respectively in the public sector.

Of respondents, 76% agreed that the UK is entering a new, more unstable period of industrial relations (up from 59% in 2008) and 71% thought that employers can expect increasing levels of industrial action over the next year (58% in 2008). The figures for the public sector were higher, at 86% and 79%.

A ‘finely balanced’ argument

As for the CIPD, its survey suggests that ‘on the front line of employment relations the argument is finely balanced’ about whether or not significant strike action is inevitable over the remainder of 2011 and into 2012. Factors supporting the proposition include:

  • the widespread belief among employers, and especially public sector employers, that industrial relations are becoming more unstable and that there will be increasing industrial action;
  • the ‘marked deterioration’ in the reported quality of management-union relations, again notably in the public sector.

However, the proportion of employers anticipating that their employees will strike during the coming year changed little from 2008 to 2011, even in the public sector. Although 31% of respondents (51% in the public sector) expected strikes in the next 12 months when surveyed in 2008, ONS figures reveal a substantial fall in strike levels in 2009. The CIPD argues that this might suggest that:

…while there is a lot of media speculation and union rhetoric about the possibility of strike action – as there was in 2008 – when it comes to actually going on strike, employees today are much harder to mobilise than they were during past times of economic and social crisis.

It concludes:

How events actually unfold over the next 18 months will illustrate whether the unions still have the power to influence public opinion and make politicians change course.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment