· Features

Why does it feel like everyone is going on strike? Part two

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

Catch up on part one of this cover story here before reading the below.


A new kind of activism

HR is also witnessing employee activism broadening and changing shape, with websites such as Organise, which describes itself as a worker-led network for fixing employment and a catalyst for action at work.

The website allows members to log in and share concerns anonymously about their industry or employer. They can ask questions, start a petition, or simply ask advice.

It was set up in 2020 and now has over 1.5 million members and is responsible for a number of worker-led petitions leading to genuine change. For example, ensuring unsold returned items to Amazon depots are either sold to workers at a discounted price or donated to charity rather than being sent to landfill.

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

Nat Whalley CEO and co-founder of Organise, says there’s a lot of energy for collective action at work at the moment. She says: “People are finding they have power when they take action collectively.

“There has been an imbalance that has gone on too long – the power between workers and their bosses.

"The cost of living crisis and the pandemic was when we really started to take off and saw more action. It’s about more than wages, though this is a big part of it and the number one concern is pay. Our organisers often love where they work and are really motivated, they just want to fix issue. They wouldn’t start action if they didn’t care.”

Whalley says part of the reason why union membership is decreasing is because of the multi-hyphen job market. She adds: “The way unions come back may be in a different shape. They have done great stuff on modernising and making it easier to join.

"People move around jobs a lot more so organising a union in those conditions is much harder. In the gig economy, people are working for different companies so building power in those spaces is really hard.”

But Whalley is keen to highlight that Organise isn’t set to replace unions. She adds: “We see ourselves as broadening the base. Around 6% of under 40s in the private sector are in a union, so they don’t have much representation. Organise is simply building the tools to help them be heard at work, so I think there’s space for both of us.”


How does HR fit in?

Given the bleak economic forecast facing 2023, strikes may be inevitable, so HR will need to be ready for potential conflict. For Evans, having a good relationship with a union is about listening, and being fair and transparent is a must. She says: “It’s about finding a way through the conflict and differing views to find the middle ground, if you can, and building a relationship with trust at its core.

“It’s not always possible so you have to decide which issues are worth standing your ground on and which ones the organisation can let go of and live with. It’s working out where both parties can compromise.

“However sometimes this is not possible and some trade union reps can become quite intransigent and you have to make sure you stick to the facts and rationale about what is best for the organisation as well as employees.”

Grimley is keen to highlight it’s not just HR’s responsibility to develop a good relationship with unions. He says: “Line management and senior managers must also be part of that relationship. Line managers should try to resolve matters locally and identify issues before they become problems, and senior management as they’re the ones taking the big decisions.”

HR can also involve Acas when tensions are rising. Chief conciliator Glasgow says: “Conciliators and mediators do not take sides and they do not impose solutions themselves. Their job is to help both sides explore options to find a solution that everyone can agree to.”

As for the role of unions in the future of work, the TUC is insistent that the whole of society benefits when union membership is high. Sharp says: “Research shows that workplaces with collective bargaining have higher pay, more training, more equal opportunities practices, better holiday and sick pay provision, more family-friendly measures, less long-hours working and better health and safety.”

Yet striking may become more of a challenge for workers in the year ahead. In September, the TUC reported the UK government to the United Nations (UN) over its attempts to derail strike action in the country.

It said ministers had taken steps to infringe the right to strike, including a new law that allows companies to use agency workers to break strikes. It has also introduced the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill which could mean a certain level of services must still run despite strike action, minimising the impact of industrial action.

Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, says if this legislation goes ahead, unions’ influence will inevitably be reduced. He says: “The legislation does not seek to ban strike action but instead to make the conditions for calling strikes so onerous that it will be difficult to call one without falling foul of the law.

"Should any strike not be lawful the union could face fines and claims for damages for seeing it through.

“One example of the strictures the unions will face is the need to re-ballot members in light of any new offer. It is to be expected that any employer will move in an incredibly incremental way to prevent a strike. Attrition will be the name of the game.”

Pay will undoubtedly be a huge issue for employees in 2023, and with things looking to only get worse throughout the recession, HR, and the rest of the C-suite, would do well to maintain open dialogue with employees to listen and respond to concerns before they get out of hand. Whether this will happen though, is up for debate.

He adds: “If there was more collaboration rather than confrontation, we would all be in a better place. Mistrust exists on both sides. Moving to more common ground is a distant prospect when the economic outlook is so poor.” 


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.