We need compromise and partnership to fix the UK’s employment relations problems

The cost of living crisis, falling real wages and wider dissatisfaction with working conditions are a potent recipe for the ongoing strike action across many public services.

These disputes are a sharp reminder of the continued influence of trade unions in key sectors, as well as the need for organisations to build positive employment relations to help avert industrial action.

Strikes and industrial unrest: FAQs

Safe minimum service levels to be set in anti-strike bill

Working parents warned to prepare for teachers’ strike

The government’s response to the collective unrest is to introduce new legislation. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill 2022-23 would allow the government to set minimum levels of service in six sectors, including fire and rescue and health and transport, which must be met during strikes in Great Britain to ensure the safety of the public and their access to public services.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound unreasonable. The strike action in frontline services understandably raises issues about the need to ensure the health and safety of the public. The government’s rationale for introducing the law: ‘to ensure that striking workers don’t put the public’s lives at risk’ is an emotive one, although in the parliamentary debate, opposition MPs argued that public services were already failing to meet minimum services even where there were no strikes.

But is the key to dealing with the current wave of industrial action a legislative one? We need much deeper scrutiny of the Bill and its potential consequences to answer that question.

Are new laws necessary?

The new legislation could have far-reaching implications beyond the government’s aim of protecting minimum service levels as this House of Commons Library briefing makes clear. For example, the Bill would allow an employer to give a ‘work notice’ to a union specifying which workers the employer required to work to ensure required service levels.

If the union fails to ‘take reasonable steps’ to ensure that all workers requested to work comply with the work notice, it will lose its protection from liability.

In such cases all workers who take part in the strike (and not just those who act contrary to work notices) would lose their protection from unfair dismissal.

This potential scenario has serious implications for the employment protection of workers who could face dismissal for actions they are not individually responsible for.

It could also mean the loss of workers in sectors such as the NHS that are already facing serious workforce shortages.

The decision to legislate as a first step seems premature. Introducing further law won’t necessarily solve the industrial relations problems causing the current waves of industrial action.

The risk is that workforce discontent becomes even more entrenched and manifests itself in unorganised conflict, such as low morale and performance, individual disputes and high staff turnover and sickness absence. These can also have a damaging impact on the level and quality of public services.

The proposed legislation could merely add to the environment of confrontation and escalation between the unions, their employers and the government.

Indeed, the government’s own impact assessment for its previously proposed legislation on MSLs for transport warns that the introduction of legislation around MSLs "has the potential to have an unintended negative impact on industrial relations, which could have detrimental impacts for all parties".

What does this mean for people professionals?

Over the past decade, CIPD research has highlighted the shifting role of people professionals, and the transition of employment relations from being a specialist discipline and career choice, to being regarded more as a skillset required by some HR generalists. At the same time, there has been comparatively little industrial relations conflict in most sectors until now.

Together, these developments have contributed to employment relations as a discipline becoming regarded as less important. This perception needs to change to enable the people profession to rise to the challenges so evident in the current climate of strikes.

The current industrial relations climate seems dominated by adversarial strike action.

However, we should take heart from the many examples of how unions and employers worked collaboratively to protect essential services, as well as employee and service user health and safety, during the pandemic.

It is possible to have that same open dialogue between employers and unions once again. In fact, CIPD research shows that most employers recognise the importance of unions and understand that it’s important to establish effective ways of working together.

 Rachel Suff is senior policy advisor on employee relations at CIPD