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Strikes return after pandemic reprieve

Recent high-profile industrial action, such as the Transport for London (TfL) Night Tube walk-out, have signalled the return of strike action after a general pause over the past two years as a result of the pandemic.

Concerns over the rising cost of living and poor work/life balance, which have surfaced since early 2020, must be taken seriously by HR, experts have warned.

The Night Tube walk-out, which will see staff absent from the Victoria and Central lines every Friday and Saturday night until June, is just one of several industrial actions that have come to the fore.

Ground handling and refuelling company Menzies will from Thursday (13 January) see staff balloted for strike action over plans for a pay freeze.

Logistics company Wincanton, meanwhile, has nearly 500 employees on strike over low pay at its B&Q distribution centre in Worksop. B&Q is facing further strikes in Scotland and England by its HGV drivers, who are employed by logistics company GXO.

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Sheila Attwood, pay and benefits editor at XpertHR, said: “The volume of industrial action definitely reduced during the pandemic, to the extent that the Office for National Statistics stopped producing data on labour disputes in April 2020, and hasn’t restarted since.

“Employees don’t take the decision to take industrial action lightly, and during the pandemic safeguarding lives and jobs took priority over taking action over pay awards.”

Many employees are highly conscious of the rise in cost of living, she added, which is expected to peak in the second quarter of 2022.

She said: “In light of everything employees have been through over the past two years, not least – in many cases – keeping businesses going, employers should look to make fair pay awards to their workforce." 

The UK’s Retail Price Index (RPI) reached highs of 7.1% in November 2021, meaning everyday costs were rising faster than they had since May 1991.

Attwood added: “A pay award that matches the current high levels of inflation may well be out of reach, but employers can look to increase other elements of the reward package to balance this.”

James Potts, legal services director at business services firm Peninsula, told HR magazine that the pressure on businesses has contributed to rising tensions between employee and employer.

He said: “The ongoing uncertainty in the economy right now means that it continues to be a very tense time. 

“We are seeing a resurgence in strike action, largely because of the increasing pressures that businesses are under to make changes to their workforce. These changes are often required quickly, and without the opportunity for lengthy consultation, which can lead to industrial disputes.”

Collective action issues are normally resolved through dispute resolution processes, and strike action is a last resort. The threat of lawful strike action, however, Potts said, can sometimes cause talks between the parties to break down.

He said: “It is often beneficial to engage an independent third party to mediate between the parties to try and prevent talks from breaking down.”

Once any action has been resolved it is important to rebuild trust between the two sides. Potts added: “It can often be hard for companies to rebuild bonds with striking workers; unions and worker representatives can help in this area, so employers should look to engage with them where possible.”

Trade Unions Congress (TUC) head of economics and workers’ rights Kate Bell told HR magazine: "Trade unions and their members want positive negotiations this year that recognise not only the rising cost of living, but that pay has stagnated for the last two decades.

"We encourage all employers to negotiate in good faith with their workforce and to recognise that it's in their best interests to make sure their workers have a decent standard of living.

“Sadly, we've seen too many employers not prepared to put a fair deal on the table, with one in 10 workers subject to downgrades in their terms and conditions during the pandemic.

"Industrial action is never taken lightly, but unions will always be willing to stand up for workers' terms and conditions, and to fight for fair pay."