Strikes: what they mean for employees and employers

The Office for National Statistics recently released an updated chart of labour disputes and days lost since 1891. The data is very illuminating; most of the time workplaces were quite harmonious.

However, spikes in activity are clearly visible in January 1931 (3.64m days lost per month to strike action), March 1957 (3.96m), February 1972 (6.51m) and September 1979 (11.71m). There are others notable events including, surprisingly, strikes held in wartime – especially in March 1944 (1.60m).

Predictably, there were no industrial disputes between February 2020 and December 2021. Post-pandemic negative sentiment in the workplace has seen unrest, but nowhere near the levels seen at other times. Indeed, only since August 2022 have days lost risen into the hundreds of thousands with a peak in December 2022 of 829,000. Since then, the numbers are down to around 69,000 now.

Pay and conditions

But strikes are back in the news again, especially in the automotive sector, with a strike by more than half the workforce at TMD Friction in Hartlepool from the start of January in a dispute over pay. As CAT detailed at the time, 180 employees – all members of Unite – rejected a 4% pay increase as it was below inflation.

A Unite official said that “the union was willing to return to the negotiating table but says there has been ‘silence’ from the company”. By the start of February the strike was called off following an agreement on pay.

TMD workers on the picket line in January

TUC senior policy officer for employment rights, Tim Sharp, has seen workers take action to defend their pay and conditions: “While we have seen the highest levels of industrial action since the pensions strikes in public services a decade ago, there have been far fewer strikes than in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Of course, none of this diminishes the impact of strikes on an individual or business if they’re on the wrong side of a dispute.

Marina Glasgow, Acas chief conciliator, understands the potential for disharmony. She comments that “strikes have been a significant component of the news in recent months and some high-profile strike action has dominated the headlines. This is something that Acas is naturally aware of.”

She explains that the whole point of conciliation is to dilute the effect of disputes and talk them away. It’s for this reason that Acas has seen many disputes that did not result in strike action.

That doesn’t make them any less difficult for the parties involved to resolve. This is why Glasgow says that that this is why “we are improving our advice and guidance on how to deal with difficult workplace situations.”

The main causes of strike action

It’s fair to ask about the main causes of strike action. Is it all about cost-of-living pay demands, or are there other issues such as grievances or support for an employee ‘unfairly’ dismissed?

From the TUC’s standpoint, Sharp cites the fact that the main national strikes have been in public services, but “there have also been many smaller disputes in private sector workplaces. Pay is the biggest issue with average pay worth less today than 15 years ago.”

Glasgow thinks the same but makes clear that many pay-related strikes are not exclusively concerned about recent rises in prices, despite the cost-of-living crisis being a widely reported issue.

Indeed, she explains that a number of strikes are “concerned with low pay increases or even frozen pay, and many unions have highlighted as part of their dispute the cumulative effect of many years of low pay and lack of investment.”

She continues: “Some disputes about pay are not just about being paid enough to live on. They can be about being paid fairly for the responsibilities and duties of the role.”

However, other situations have involved the need or desire for businesses to make changes to ways of working to improve competitiveness and profitability, or to simply to reduce costs during tough economic times.

That said, Glasgow has seen “outside factors such as rapid inflation and a fall in real terms wages lead to unions balloting strike action to leverage wage increases.”

Some might say that there have been more attempts to resolve situations. Others suggest that employees are being hardnosed about calling and balloting for strikes. But from a logical standpoint, whenever a strike is called it is a clear indicator that workers feel strongly about the given issue.

For many, who ordinarily aren’t militant, the decision to vote for strike action is not an easy one to make; few can afford to lose a day’s pay, so strike action is a very visible sign that they want the employer to listen to what they are saying.

While workers lose pay when they strike Sharp thinks that such “action is sometimes needed to bring an employer to the negotiating table.”

Acas aims to help negotiations. In fact, conciliation isn’t anything new and its roots in the UK can be traced back to the Conciliation Act 1896.

This led to the government of the day launching a voluntary conciliation and arbitration service which gave free advice to employers and unions on industrial relations and personnel problems.

Evolving over the years, the service became Acas – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service – in 1974. Its purpose, as Glasgow states, to “provide an impartial and confidential space to have the necessary dialogue to help the parties find their way through their issues.”

Talking is clearly the best way of resolving disputes and so the better an employer’s channels and relationships are with their workforce and representatives, the better the chance of anticipating and avoiding strikes.

“A strike,” says Glasgow, “is an option of last resort, so should rarely come as a surprise. Thus, regular forums and joint working groups provide an opportunity to work towards compromise… provided they are engaged with meaningfully.”

Advice to employers

Employers need to tread carefully where a dispute deteriorates to the point of strike action since the law prescribes the process and grants employees certain rights if the rules are followed.

Workers taking part in official industrial action, including strikes, are protected by law. This means that employers should not cause detriment to any strikers, by, for example, reducing their hours, bullying or harassing them, or turning down requests for training because they’ve gone on strike, or if they have taken action short of a strike, such as working to rule.

Striking employees are also protected from dismissal by law. If an employee is dismissed for going on strike for 12 weeks or less it is automatically an unfair dismissal.

If an official strike is called employers can ask their employees if they intend to take part. However, workers do not need to tell their employers if they plan to participate; they should, though, tell their employer they’ve been on strike when they return to work.

Mark Stevens, a senior associate at VWV, recommends that employers are careful when asking colleagues of striking employees – who might not be participating in action themselves – to cover industrial action.

He details that “non-striking employees have the right to refuse additional work or extended hours beyond their contractual obligations and employers who try to force their employees to take on additional duties could face resignations and constructive dismissal claims.” In his opinion, asking non-striking employees to cover their colleagues in these circumstances is likely to negatively influence workplace relationships.

Stevens generally considers the legal issues in relation to strikes to be “complex and subject to frequent change.” A good example of this is the recent judgment on agency workers. He explains that “in July 2022, the government revoked regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003, which meant that employment agencies were legally permitted to provide agency staff to carry out the duties of striking employees.

However, in July 2023 the High Court ruled in favour of 13 trade unions challenging the revocation of regulation 7.” This decision, he says, means that the ban on employment agencies providing temporary workers to cover the work of employees on strike remains in place.

Practical advice to an employer facing industrial action is very fact specific, but the key points that employers should consider are:

  • What is the trade dispute about and what are the issues leading to the threatened industrial action?
    • The employer should seek to understand the different viewpoints and perspectives in order to identify the issues and areas of consensus;
  • Has the union met its relevant legal obligations?
    • Trade unions are subject to strict obligations in terms of what information they include in notices to employers, ballots and any notice of strike action. These documents should be carefully reviewed in order to check compliance;
  • What communications might be helpful to send to employees?
    • Any sent should be carefully and sensitively drafted; and
  • What wider communications and continuity planning might be necessary – what steps can be taken to keep the business operating or meeting its objectives?
    • This might include thinking about communications with clients or customers or press releases.

It is clear that employers and employees need to find ways of nurturing a culture of talking that reaches agreements. For Sharp, this is best done through negotiating committees (with unions).

Ultimately, Stevens knows that strikes can be disruptive. However, he reckons that “by approaching issues with fairness, transparency and a commitment to reaching a solution, employers can navigate a strike while minimising the long- term impact on the business and preserving positive relationships with employees.”

Summary

Strikes are a part of the fabric of industrial life. However, that doesn’t mean that they are inevitable. Good lines of communication between all parties won’t eliminate strikes, but they will reduce the odds of them occurring.

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