In an industrial dispute, the threat of a strike is the trade unions' trump card, and one which they will tell you that they are loath to pull. The ramifications of such stoppages are far reaching, and affect everyone, from shareholders, management and executives, to customers, employees and their families.
The topic has proved to be one upon which industry seems reluctant to speak. "Let me tell you that you will never get any alteration in any of your conditions or wages, unless you join together and form a strong trade union," Will Thorn told gas workers in 1889. "It is easy to break one stick, but when fifty sticks are together in one bundle it is a much more difficult job."
Most people would like to think that industrial relations have advanced beyond the stick-breaking stage since 1889; but have they?
Not as common
Tom Wilson, head of the organisation and services department of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), believes they have. He says it is important to acknowledge that strikes are "very rare" these days.
"The vast majority of workplace issues are resolved without ever reaching the dispute stage," he says. "And the vast majority of disputes are resolved without the need for any sort of industrial action. When action is taken it is more likely to be short of a strike, such as work to rule or an overtime ban, which can often be more effective."
"The shape of the labour market has changed over recent years," he adds. "Industries that have, in the past, been more commonly associated with industrial strife, shipbuilding and coalmining for example, now play much less of a major part in our economy."
He also believes that a shift in the culture of business management has had a big part to play in the decreasing number of strikes. "Management and HR are now much more professional," he says. "People are much more willing to sit down and talk than they have been in the past."
He agrees that calling a strike is always a method of last resort. "It's important to remember is that union members lose money when they go on strike," he says. "So this only happens when management try to push something unreasonable. A call to strike is really a call from the heart from unions."
Whether this call from the heart has an effect on the relationship between HR and staff is something of a moot point from the union's perspective. The simple fact that a strike has been called is evidence enough of some kind of serious breakdown in relations.
Wilson acknowledges that there is a threatening element to the act of any union calling a strike ballot, but insists that to threaten is not the main intention. "If a dispute gets to that stage, employers need to be asking themselves how things have got so bad," he says. "A ballot result in favour of a strike is a demonstration of feeling among employees. It's them saying, 'I feel strongly enough about this issue to strike'."
In contrast with the decline in the number of strikes, the range of issues involved in industrial relations has increased in recent years. "The environment is now much more complicated," says Wilson. "Issues like discrimination have become important in the last few years, and there are plenty of others to consider also."
The government advice on avoiding industrial disputes tells employers to create a culture that prevents conflict arising. "You need to develop channels for keeping workers informed," says the Business Link service. "Also important are clearly defined grievance procedures that have been agreed by elected representatives or employees, which allow workers to voice their concerns before they develop into major disputes."
A vote in favour of action does not mean that a strike is inevitable. Once the threat (or call from the heart, depending on which way you look at it) is firmly on the table, further negotiations will, more often than not, result in a last minute deal being reached.
Under the 2002 Employment Act, all employers, regardless of their size, are required by law to have in place statutory procedures for dealing with dismissal, disciplinary action and grievances; all issues which, improperly handled, can lead to an industrial dispute. Companies are obliged to inform their employees of these procedures, which apply to the behaviour of employees as well.
Mike Emmott, employee relations advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personal Development, agrees that the number of days lost to strike action is far less than it was 10 years ago. "I would say that the number of days lost to sickness is a significantly more important issue," he says. “Following the continuous advances in the standard of living over the past 10 years, people are more worried about things like work life balance. The working class 'united against the management' culture has evaporated in most places. More is done to persuade workers that their future lays in supporting their organisation."
However, disputes still occur from time to time, as British Airways have recently been finding out. There is "some truth" in the TUC assertion that strikes are caused by unreasonable management, he says, though there are certain things that can be done to make your workforce more forgiving. Respect, he says, is key.
"All of our surveys show us that when top management is not visible and obviously neither know nor care about their employees, this seriously damages the relationship with workers," he says. "Set out to be a good employer and you will buy yourself credibility. Inform workers about possible changes early on. Do the best you can
"If morale is strong and a positive relationship exists between management and employees, workers are more likely to forgive one or even a series of mistakes."
By Matt Henkes