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CIPD outlines action Government should take to protect the public services from industrial unrest

The only way to stop strike action in the public sector is to focus on building public-sector leadership and management skills and improving communication and consultation, according to the CIPD.

A report from the CIPD, Developing Positive Employee Relations, highlights the higher stakes policy options the Government should be considering to protect public services if there is an upsurge in industrial unrest, including banning strike action by workers involved in the essential services.

Other policy options open to the Government set out in the paper include legislation to require parties to public service disputes to take part in compulsory arbitration prior to industrial action and changes to balloting requirements so that ballots should be counted separately for each employer.

The paper highlights research from the CIPD’s quarterly Employee Outlook survey series, showing low levels of trust and confidence among public-sector employees in senior management teams – just 16% of public-sector employees say they trust their senior leaders.

More than half (54%) of public-sector staff agree most people today are not willing to lose pay by going on strike, compared with 47% in the private sector, and more than four in 10 employees are in favour of banning public-sector workers involved in the delivery of essential services from striking

Mike Emmott, CIPD employee relations adviser, said: "Trade unions have the power to disrupt only if employees trust them more than they trust management. The fundamental need is not to ‘manage the trade unions’, it is to manage the employment relationship and communicate the case for change.

"However it is also incumbent on the Government to consider the policy options open to it for reducing the risk of disruptive and damaging industrial action by public-service employees, such as banning strike action of those involved in the delivery of essential services. If the Government were forced to go down this route it would be a sign of its failure to make the case for change to public-sector employees.

"Government must strive to avoid this situation at all costs as it would mean any attempt at trying to lead though consensus had failed. For the unions too, the stakes are high – if they overplay their hand and take industrial action on issues where they don’t have public sympathy they will create conditions that make it more likely that the Government will implement one of the measures outlined in this paper, aimed at blunting the threat of strike action.

"Both sides have heavy duty weapons available to them but neither has much to gain from deploying them.  Unions, government, frontline workers and public alike have far more to gain from a strategy focused on building trust and avoiding conflict."

A spokeswoman from the Public Sector People Managers Association (PPMA), said: "We strongly support staff engagement but recognise this is going to be difficult. Changes in the public sector are likely to have an impact on employee attitudes and feelings with cuts and job losses on the cards, a pay freeze, a review of pensions and a stream of negative media reporting about the public sector.
"Whilst organisations in the commercial sector are also going through change the public sector faces unique challenges in terms of employee engagement. Politicians are directing the policy decisions that public sector managers have to interpret and implement, and there are almost daily announcements about major public sector reform reported in the press before managers on the ground have any knowledge of what is being proposed.
"Strike action is another area touched on in the CIPD report which suggests there is a debate to be had in this area. The PPMA will support trade unions and public sector employers in discussing these issues so that we work together to ensure a sustainable future for the public sector."