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National attitude towards the public sector strikes is 'softening', according to survey of 2,000 staff

With less than a week to go until the proposed public sector strike, research from the CIPD reveals while there is limited support among employees for strike action that disrupts public services, attitudes to unions and public sector strike action have softened slightly in the past 12 months.

The CIPD polled more than 2,000 employees as part of its research Employee Outlook Focus on Industrial Relations, published alongside a new report on Industrial Relations skills by the CIPD.

It found that seven in 10 (72%) employees agree, in light of the tough times endured by the private sector, striking public sector workers will quickly lose sympathy if they cause disruption to the public, compared to 74% in 2010.

Attitudes among private sector respondents remain unchanged, with 78% agreeing with this statement, however just 54% of public sector workers agree compared to 59% a year ago.

The majority (59%) of employees also agree 'these are tough times and the deficit needs to be reduced through cuts to public spending', which represents a drop in support for spending cuts (in 2010 64% agreed). The proportion of private sector respondents agreeing that the deficit needs to be reduced through cuts to public sector spending has fallen to 65% from 69%, while among public sector respondents just 40% agree with this statement compared to 50% in 2010.

This highlights a consistent theme running through the survey: where attitudes have shifted in favour of the unions, the move is more pronounced among public sector respondents.

The survey also found 44% of respondents agree they are more concerned about the damage strikes would do than about the impact of spending cuts compared to 48% last year. The shift in opinion is particularly marked in the public sector, where just 29% agree this year compared to 36% in 2010.

More than a third (37%) of employees now agree that workers have to do what's necessary to protect their jobs and any disruption to public services is the price of living in a democracy. In 2010, just 33% of respondents agreed with this statement. And those agreeing that industrial action in essential services should be banned has dropped from 37% in 2010 to 32% in this year's survey.

In terms of the actual likelihood of strike action, the survey found that a quarter of public sector workers who are a member of a union would be very likely to strike over plans to cut their pay (25%) or pensions (26%), while a further fifth say they would be likely to strike over these issues.

Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy, said: "The strike on 30 November could be the peak of coordinated public sector action against pension reform or it could just be another stage in a prolonged campaign; these findings suggest that the argument is still there to be won or lost. What will be revealing is not so much the turnout and disruption on 30 November but what happens next. How much appetite is there, among core union members, for a really sustained campaign of strike action or non-co-operation, such as work to rule? Just as importantly what would happen to public attitudes to strike action if there really was sustained and widespread disruption to essential services?

"The eventual outcome of the dispute will depend on the extent to which negotiations are seen as genuine by both parties and the extent to which the Government and union leaders are able to convince union members and the wider working public that their position is fair and reasonable.

"In the light of the economic uncertainty we currently face both domestically and internationally, both the Government and the unions will have to remain flexible and prepared to compromise to avoid any further damaging strike action at a time when the UK can least afford it. Transparency of communication, coupled with strong industrial relations skills both at a national and a local level, will be absolutely crucial to negotiations and a successful resolution that does not leave a legacy of bitterness."

"Not surprisingly, public sector industrial relations are attracting all the headlines at the moment but the CIPD's new research insight on industrial relations, published to coincide with this survey, highlights a general shortfall in the industrial relations skills needed to maintain and build positive employment relations with the unions."