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Colborn’s Corner: Who remembers industrial relations?


Quentin Colborn

The current dispute at Gate Gourmet and BA is reminiscent of the true industrial disputes of the 1970’s. Apparently the employer is trying to reduce the influence of the unions and use an industrial dispute as a rationale to reduce headcount, while at the same time the union is allegedly trying to subvert the interests of the company and defend the indefensible.

Added to this we have illegal secondary action among the ground staff at BA. All we need now is beer and sandwiches at No 10 and it will be a true throwback to the 1970’s.

I wouldn’t claim to have any special insight on this dispute – the only interest I have is as a long-suffering BA shareholder, but it is interesting to see things from the outside and just wonder what’s going on. As an aside, how did the term ‘industrial action’ ever come into being? To me, it seems like a complete misnomer when ‘action’ is the least likely thing to happen!

There is an interesting academic challenge in this dispute as well as the more practical issues. How many of us are aware of the legislation that relates to unofficial action? I used to feel comfortable with my knowledge of employee relations, but I have to confess that when it comes to the finer points of TULRA (Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992) I had to hit the reference books!

What really interests me in this dispute is the impact it is having on BA. Clearly there are very real family and cultural ties between the Gate Gourmet staff and many of the ground staff at Heathrow. Indeed, apparently some of the existing Gate Gourmet staff previously worked for BA prior to the work being outsourced. But why was the unofficial walkout such a surprise? To my mind, one of the key tasks of both line and HR staff is to keep an ear to the ground and to be aware of the likelihood of action taking place. Perhaps this happened – perhaps not!

What of the union (T&GWU) in this situation? They have had the twin challenge of a potentially nasty dispute at Gate Gourmet where they are being threatened with the closure of the Company or accepting that some of their members will not be reinstated. At the same time a group of members have taken unofficial action that the Union cannot countenance. I suspect that this is merely the precursor to a much bigger battle between BA and the T&GWU when the new BA COE, Willie Walsh, takes over.

Some commentators have questioned the business acumen of outsourcing a key activity such as catering, thereby losing control over what goes on. Yet in fairness to BA, in many ways that risk remains if the work is kept in-house, there is still the risk of industrial action or some other supply difficulty.

What I think the dispute should remind us of as HR people is the role we have to play in risk assessment when it comes to outsourcing. In many situations outsourcing is driven by bottom line impact, and while that is doubtless important, how often do we see HR professionals being involved in the business case and assessing the business risk?

I think that as a function we have become much more knowledgeable and proficient at handling the process issues – and these are far from easy – yet how much are we called upon to assess the people risks inherit in an outsourcing activity?

Every business operation carries risk and outsourcing is one of them. That isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be done, what should always happen though is that HR contributes to a full assessment of the risks involved and endeavour to look a long way into the future. Not necessarily easy, but vital for the long-term effectiveness of the activity.

What experience do readers have of assessing risk within outsourcing? How many organisations assess the industrial relations climate when taking outsourcing decisions?

Quentin Colborn is an HR Consultant who helps businesses address employment relations issues and internal communications. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on 01376 571360

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

4 Responses

  1. outsourcing er
    What interets me is why on earth BA only appear to have outsourced to one catering supplier. The answer has to be either big company arrogance/short-sightedness or union pressure. There appears to have been no risk assessment. If there was a genuine market in such supply to BA then Gate Gourmet would have either sorted out their problems or gone to the wall. Whilst having reservations about the efficiency and fairness of the market it does work. What is unfair about inefficient suppliers losing work to efficient companies with good employee relations?
    My supicion is that BA did risk assess the IR climate and fudged the issue by only outsourcing to GG, hoping that the market or God would solve the problem.

  2. Back to the future
    What strikes me (pardon the pun) about this is that BA cleverly managed to remove some of it most militant employees with an outsource deal and remove some staggering working practices that would not be tolerated in many other industries. However it has yet to deal with the very real Sword of Damacles that it has held over it every year by ‘unofficial’ action. Perhaps it should grasp the nettle and use what rights it has left to deal with its remaining trouble makers who do not use the correct and agreed mechanims to deal with issues. BA will have to accept it will be painful and may hit profitability in teh short term but otherwise it will be facing the inevitable slow decline with the loss of its customer base who are no longer be prepared to put up with the lottery each August of not knowing if they will be able to fly or not. I do genuinely feel for its IR staff and have had some fun times with militant unions but they must surely be reccommending some more robust action if they or anyone else in the company expect to see themselves still in business in a couple of years. Does the TGWU not also see that it stands to lose too much for the majority by not taking action against these militants. I believe it is possible to have a conflict free relationship but this has to be achieved by maturity on both sides and without the emotive involvement of local reps who are probably agruing with too much vested interest.

  3. Theory and practice
    Somehow, I can’t believe that the employees of the catering firm are striking because they have lost their “false consciousness” and have realised that Capital is, simply, “the accumulation of previously expropriated surplus wage labour”. No, they are on strike to defend their “Spanish” working practices. Just like BL and Ford in the past. Some airlines and their associated service companies retain working practices that would have made Red Robbo blush. For instance, remember the BA check-in staff’s sickness levels? However, TPG (the owner of the catering Co.), are at the, er, “advanced” end of capital. They also own a large slug of Ryanair, who will be delighted with BA’s problems.

  4. Who remembers Industrial Relations?
    So Quentin, you’re a capitalist in the purest sense of the word (you own shares), while the Gate Gourmet workes are classic labour; owning no capital which they can rent out they rely on hiring out their labour to employers to keep body and soul together. Perhaps Marx was right after all and the the interests of Capital and Labour are permamanently and inevitably in conflict.Karen Legge argued some years ago that the role of Personnel (as was) was to paper over this inherent contradiction in the capitalist system to avoid disputes of this kind.

    After Francis Fukuyama suggested that the collapse of communism meant the end of history, everybody thought that The Workers would suddenly become content with whatever lot the free market allocated them, whatever effect that had on their daily lives. Apparently not: they seem to have woken up to the fact that while the free market provides opportunities for vast wealth for some, for others it means low pay, poor working conditions and uncertainty.

    I’m not suggesting that that a resurgence of left-inspired collective action is either desirable or inevitable, but we don’t do ourselves any favours by pretending that the pressures which led to it in the first place have simply evaporated.

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