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Colborn’s Corner: Industrial inaction


Quentin Colborn

Quentin Colborn comments on how the current headlines about strikes on the London tube have alerted people to the fact that industrial walk outs are not necessarily a thing of the past. There has also been recent news of potential action at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and, of all places, a strike at Coca Cola.

How do we view strikes these days? Are they something that is merely an anachronism from the bad old days of adversarial industrial relations where negotiations were simply a test of strength, or are they simply the result of poor employment relations?

What I think we are seeing these days is that more frequently strikes are used as trials of strength – especially where they follow structural changes in the industry in question.

While the tube strike may be on hold at the minute, my understanding is that RMT are in dispute about guarantees of employment which have been accepted by other unions. Does this indicate a power struggle between unions or simply differing interpretations of the Transport for London (TFL) position?

More and more, I suspect, we will see strikes as being more tactical and targeted rather than the ‘blunderbuss’ approach that characterised employment relations in the 1970’s and 80’s. Historically, strikes have tended to be about basic pay and other cash compensation matters. Today pay is still an issue, but also pensions and job security are becoming equally big factors.

I have to confess that today I very much see strikes from the outside. How, I wonder, are they seen from within trade unions? I have a suspicion that with a marked shift towards consumerism over the previous 20 years, as well as the changing patterns of workforces, there are economic reasons for employees to be disinclined to strike. Doubtless this has been aided by the demise of the traditional heavy industries where union membership penetration was at its highest.

Management approaches

Taking an alternative view, could the reduction in strike activity be due to more enlightened management approaches? Somehow I doubt it. I believe the management approach to pay has become more pragmatic and commercial with businesses recognising that there is a fairly active market for labour. This results in labour rates that are determined by external supply and demand, rather than simply by the industrial muscle of the workforce.

In terms of labour supply, perhaps the market is influenced by the growth of temporary labour. More and more organisations are formulating their manpower plan on the basis of a core workforce that is supplemented by casual or agency staff when required. The cost advantages are clear; what may not be so clear are the long-term effects on quality and perceptions of security amongst the core employees.

So what of the future? My expectation is that for some time there will be no great amount of industrial action. Few ’causes’ will attract wide public support and employees will be wary of taking action that results in short-term losses of earnings.

So what is your experience of strike action? Are management taking active steps to prevent strikes or is the current situation happening of its own accord? Have you ever been involved in a strike – if so, what was your experience?

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

One Response

  1. Contingency plans for industrial action
    Given the economic realities now prevailing in both the public and private sectors, I see where the incidence of industrial action may actually increase.

    I have been trying to develop a contingency plan in the event of industrial action being taken, and have been trying to find information on the Web without success. I’d be very greatful for any assistance that I can get with samples of documents, policies, etc.

    Thanks in advance.


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