How to stop a pay dispute turning into a strike

There has been more industrial strife in the UK over the past year than we’ve seen in a generation. What’s the best way to prevent a breakdown in employment relations?

Wherever you look in the UK these days, it seems that there’s a group of workers who are either on strike or threatening to take some form of industrial action

Travel disruption has been widespread, as the country experiences its most significant rail strikes for a generation. Meanwhile, public sector workers are becoming increasingly restless as the cost-of-living crisis worsens and their pay offers fail to match inflation. Such is the scale of discontent that it’s even leading to talk of a possible general strike. 

To exacerbate matters, the Bank of England’s warnings of a long and deep recession starting from Q4 2022 suggest that the situation is unlikely to improve for at least the next year.

Kevin Rowan is head of organising, services and learning at the Trades Union Congress. While he believes that headlines referring to a summer of discontent have been “hyperbolic”, he does cite anecdotal evidence from both the unions and the government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) indicating that disputes, mainly concerning pay, are on the rise.

“Without question, there has been more industrial action in the past 12 months than we’ve seen in a generation,” Rowan says. 

Employers can’t take good industrial relations for granted

This upsurge in militancy has come as no surprise to David Liddle, founder and CEO of conflict-resolution consultancy The TCM Group. In his view, the economic fallout from the Brexit vote and then the Covid crisis had been causing a “slow build-up of tension” in the years leading to Q4 2021. 

“The cost-of-living crisis and inflationary pressure on wages have simply brought these structural challenges into sharp relief,” he says.

Liddle also believes that many employers had been taking good industrial relations for granted – for instance, by neglecting to renew long-standing partnership agreements – which has compounded the problem. Some companies have no such deals in place to update.

These agreements are important because they set the ground rules for how business leaders and employee representatives, including unions, interact in both good times and bad. They will typically cover matters such as how often the parties should meet and how disagreements between them should be addressed. 

As Mark Grimley, group director of people and corporate services at the government of Jersey, puts it: “If you haven’t set the foundations and the day-to-day things aren’t working, how are you going to deal with the trickier stuff?”

The cost-of-living crisis and inflationary pressure on wages have simply brought these structural challenges into sharp relief

Equally important in stopping discontent from turning into a dispute is ensuring that effective communication channels exist between front-line staff and senior executives. These enable information to be shared openly, which in turn fosters mutual understanding, trust and respect. 

“If the unions are coming to you with an issue and it’s the first you’ve heard of it, you have a problem, as it shows that you’re not in touch with your front line,” Grimley warns. “In effect, you’ve outsourced your engagement with staff to the unions. They can play a very positive role. But, if you’ve abdicated responsibility to them, they’ll have that mandate without reservation.”

Any failure to build constructive relationships with either employees or their representatives is unlikely to engender trust in the leadership team, he adds. 

“If you’re having to come out of your gilded cage for the first time to face workers in a dispute, no one will listen to you,” Grimley says. 

Trust also forms the bedrock of effective talks. As Liddle notes: “If you’re negotiating during a dispute and the parties are suspicious of each other’s motivations, they’ll feel as if their backs are against the wall. Positions will tend to get entrenched.”

The best approach to a negotiation, therefore, is to be accessible, open and honest. Keep the dialogue constructive and professional, rather than pointing the finger of blame and making things personal. 

Avoiding a deadlock

Another secret to mastering the art of negotiation is to treat the process like a high-level chess match, which includes ensuring that your players (authorised senior decision-makers) are well prepared. 

“Chess masters will plan carefully, be clear about the positions they want to take and study their opponents so that nothing they do is likely to surprise them. But don’t think that you have to ‘win’,” Grimley says. “Effective negotiation is about finding the positives in the situation for everyone.”

For example, after listening carefully to the other side’s position and understanding what is of most and least value to employees, it may be possible to take a more creative approach than simply offering a percentage pay increase, particularly if times are tough. You could offer extra annual leave in return for productivity improvements, for instance.

But executives must also be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table – without issuing ultimatums, which never work – rather than do a deal at any cost, according to Grimley. And that’s even in cases where industrial action is likely. 

“This doesn’t signify failure. What you’re saying by doing that is: ‘I’ve reached my limit and can’t continue,’” he says. “There shouldn’t be a blame game. It’s simply about going away and allowing everyone to rethink their approach.”

Effective negotiation is about finding the positives in the situation for everyone

One way to avoid any potential deadlock is to hold informal discussions with someone influential from the other side. Another is to involve a senior executive who has been held in reserve but who could bring new momentum to proceedings. A third is to bring in an experienced third party, such as Acas, to mediate and encourage people back around the table.

Ultimately, Rowan says, the only real way to end any dispute is to “talk to each other and keep communicating”. This is ideally done out of the public eye, as “I’ve never seen any conflict resolved through the media”.

Once a resolution has been reached, though, it is important for everyone involved to learn from the experience and try to repair any relationship damage.

“Most people, whether they’re employees or employers, want good relations, so it’s important to explore what went wrong and consider how to prevent a recurrence,” Rowan stresses. “But having a regular dialogue and tuning into each other’s situations will also go a long way to solving any problems.”