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Why does it feel like everyone is going on strike?

Industrial action is on the rise again, across a range of sectors, and HR has a crucial role to play in helping employers and employees alike mitigate its effects, finds Jo Gallacher

During the pandemic, we were encouraged that brighter days were ahead. We were promised we would meet again, and this time we’d be more grateful, take things at a slower pace and just be thankful life was back to normal. But it never really did get back to normal, did it?

More from inside the November/December 2022 issue:

Will 2023 bring an end to strikes and workplace unrest?

Hot topic: Do you need to fire staff to take a business in a new direction?

HR needs to prepare for further sackings in 2023

We may no longer be locked down, but we’re arguably no less trapped than we were during that fretful time, except this time it’s economics.

We’re officially in recession, according to our newest iteration of chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the cost of living crisis is plunging many more into poverty and inflation is at highest level for 40 years. It should therefore come as no surprise there have been multiple calls for strike action from a variety of industries.

From the onset of the Industrial Revolution, working men and women have been withholding their labour as a means of bargaining for better pay and conditions. Strikes have become a frequent fixture in industrial relations in the UK, some of the most famous being held in the 1980s following the decline of the mining industry.

And they are certainly back with a vengeance this year. Train strikes threatened British holiday-makers’ plans throughout the summer and continue to do so as we head towards Christmas, Royal Mail workers have been preventing post from reaching the letterbox and teachers are reportedly one step closer to going on strike in Britain after rejecting a 5% pay rise.

In a first for the profession, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in November announced that thousands of its nurse members had voted to strike across the majority of NHS employers in the UK, while some nurses from the GMB union and members from the Royal College of Midwives also secured a mandate for industrial action.

In 2019, on average 19,500 days a month were lost to strike action. In July 2022, the figure was 87,600, according to the Office for National Statistics. So what’s the root cause of growing employee discontent? And what can HR do to mitigate it?

“These are definitely challenging times for employment relations. Many people are facing a cost of living crisis and real wages are falling at a record rate,” says chief conciliator at Acas Marina Glasgow.

“The reasons for workplace disputes can be varied but we are seeing a large number that involve pay. Around 68% of disputes currently focus on pay issues or pay and conditions, which can include changes to contractual terms.”

According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which is made up of 48 unions in the UK with a total of more than 5.5 million members, 2022’s increase in strike action has been brewing for years.

Tim Sharp, senior employment rights officer at TUC, says: “The cost of living crisis is also a pay crisis. Pay packets are worth less today than 15 years ago. Wages are worth £100 per month less than a year ago. Since the Conservatives took power in 2010, the UK has one of the worst records on pay for all wealthy nations.

“For example, nurses’ real pay is down £4,300 compared with 2010 and paramedics’ real pay is down by £5,600 compared with 2010. One in five children of key workers live in poverty. No one takes the decision to go on strike lightly.”

And the strikes, for some industries at least, appear to be working for employees. Criminal barristers accepted a 15% pay rise in October, taxi drivers in Scotland agreed a 5% pay deal and bus drivers in Kent won a pay deal worth nearly 14% after six days of strike action.

'Inflationary pressures, Brexit, the cost of living...the nature of hybrid working and the fragmentation of the workforce have all combined to create a ticking time bomb.”

Industrial action is supposed to cause issues; it’s what gives employees bargaining power to obtain better pay deals, working conditions or pensions. But with inflation reaching 11% and energy bills reaching eye-watering monthly totals, unions may decide to work together towards a general strike.

David Liddle, CEO of HR consultancy the TCM Group, thinks a general strike is: “A culmination of inflationary pressures, the fallout from Brexit, the cost of living, economic and political instability, the nature of hybrid working and the fragmentation of the workforce have all combined to create a ticking time bomb.”

Fiona Evans, director of people and culture at RSPCA, is less convinced, citing waning union membership figures. She says: “I am not sure if there are enough union members across the country to enable a general strike but I do believe that the trade union movement would like more collective action to give them a stronger negotiating mandate to increase current pay offers, for example coordinate strike action on same or simultaneous days to maximise action.”

Even if we don’t see a general strike, the impact of numerous strikes across various sectors can still cause plenty of disruption and the public seem divided on their support for striking workers. In the summer, polls on the rail strike from Ipsos and Opinium found roughly equal numbers supporting and opposing them. The government also claimed that the first wave of rail strikes in June 2022 had cost the UK economy £100 million.

It also complicates matters for HR when there are multiple unions attached to a specific sector, or the organisation works across various sectors. Mark Grimley, group director for people and corporate services at Government of Jersey, says: “I have 12 different unions I work with. Each one with a different policy agenda, driven by a national policy agenda.

“For example, some unions wish to protect and enhance terms and conditions over job reductions, while some would rather negotiate terms and conditions to protect jobs. It’s very difficult if you have more than one trade union in a bargaining group and they have opposing national policies.

“But generally, at a local and regional level there is a constructive and practical dialogue that takes place. On one occasion, the local union branch was undergoing internal battles and this made it very difficult to work with them, and they lost a lot of members as their internal disputes were off-putting to their wider membership.”


How to ensure positive relationships between HR and unions

1. Depersonalise the problem. The union is not the problem, the issues are the problem. It’s not about personalities, and when issues are raised it’s not a personal attack. 

2. Walk towards rather than walk away. Walk towards the union with your hand outstretched, and invite them to come and sit with you and have a conversation.

3. Listen to what they have to say. Make sure you are listening to understand rather than listening to defend. Yes they might be cross, angry, militant, hostile – but that’s not about you, that’s about the situation, so listen and don’t defend. Then invite them to listen to you. And invite them to hear. 

By David Liddle, CEO of TCM Group


It may feel as if unions are becoming more powerful given the number of strikes this year, yet there has been a decline in union membership since large-scale industrial action in 1970s.

Evans says: “Overall union membership in the UK is around 23%, which is the lowest percentage on record, but there are still around 50% of people in the public sector that are union members.”

Yet she predicts if the cost of living crisis continues to devastate the UK’s workforce, union membership may witness an increase. She adds: “When things get tough in the economy, trade unions will be looking for new members and will continue to be a strong voice in the public sector but, given past trends, I am not sure they will make headway in other sectors in the same way.”

For Liddle, union membership being down is not the only shake-up of power.

He says: “The power that the unions have had in the industrial relations space in the last 20 years has diminished somewhat, and that has diminished through the well-documented reduction in the membership of trade unions, but it’s part of a breakdown of a social contract.

“All parties have lost some power because of that, not just the unions. I think HR has become less powerful and to an extent, although the employer has all the power, this has been reduced. Employers have less of a positive engagement with their employees and have less of a direct employee voice. And I would argue that employee voice and employee activism is a really powerful way for leaders to drive a successful business.”


Read part two of this cover story here.

The full feature above first appeared in the November/December 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.