The changing nature of industrial action means that the focus of employee relations practitioners is shifting increasingly towards preventing rather than managing conflict, according to the CIPD.
In its ‘Managing Employee Relations in difficult times’ report, the HR membership body revealed that the average number of days lost each year to industrial action had plummeted over the last 40 years.
While workers spent an average 12.9 million days on strike during the 1970s, the figure fell to 7.2 million during the 1980s, dropping to only one million from the 1990s onwards. The vast majority of walk-outs took place among public sector employees (92% in 2011), with more than half of them lasting for only one day.
But the situation does not mean that industrial conflict has ended – simply changed its form.
Instead ballots and the threat of ballots for industrial action now appear to be used as a key tool to persuade employers to negotiate. Figures from the Office for National Statistics
indicate that in 2011, there were almost 1,000 ballots, of which a mere 149 resulted in strike action.
Another increasingly popular tactic to make employers sit up and take notice is street demonstrations, in which trade unions make common cause with other community or political groups. This approach included the national ‘day of action’, which was organised by the TUC
in September 2011.
A third approach, meanwhile, was simply to threaten industrial action which, in some instances depending on a given employers’ business, can result in damage to their reputation and brand.
Mike Emmott, the CIPD’s employee relations adviser, said that the shift in union tactics over recent years reflected a perception that industrial action organised along traditional lines was no longer a reliable means for them to achieve their objectives.
“As a result of this shift, the role of employee relations professionals has also moved on. Our research confirms that most ER practitioners focus more on preventing rather than managing conflict,” he added.
As a result, they tended to be more engaged with issues that directly affected business performance, which meant providing “essential support to both top management and front-line supervisors to protect the future of the business”, Emmott said.