Why anti-strike laws are a dangerous fault line for HR

A new government bill seeks to implement minimum required levels of service for key public functions. What are the implications for HR teams working with unionised workers in other sectors?

Article1 - Online HR report - strikes

The start of 2023 has seen a raft of strikes by key front-line workers in the UK. Train drivers and support staff, teachers, nurses and firefighters have all walked out at various points, demanding an increase in wages and improvements in working conditions. 

This has resulted in Rishi Sunak’s government drafting new legislation that would curtail the right to strike. The Strikes (Minimum Services Level) Bill would force unionised workers to cross the picket line, introducing minimum staffing requirements in six key sectors: health, transport, education, nuclear decommissioning, fire and rescue services, and border security. Unionised workers that refuse to work would be at risk of instant termination, with their unions subject to lawsuits. 

But the introduction of this law could have profound implications for unionised workers in the private sector too. There are fears it could embolden employers to circumvent negotiations and take part in union-busting activities that could reduce all workers’ right to strike. 

Alan Price, now COO of employment law firm Peninsula, started his career as a trade union representative for workers in call centres at Royal Insurance (now More Than) and the Norwich Union (now Aviva). He believes that many workers in private industries will feel put out by the anti-strike legislation. “In the short term, employees will feel a right has been taken away,” says Price. “It would be a further hurdle to making their voices known. Strike action is the last sanction available to those employees through the trade union.

“It’s going to cause issues,” he continues. “Are employees going to push for overtime, request flexible work or ask for a reduction in hours? That bit of goodwill that exists in all workforces is going to be diminished because of the required minimum level of service.” 

Another dent in Britain’s productivity

This ill-feeling has the potential to seriously impact the UK’s ability to bounce back from recession. While the government would argue that stopping industrial action would improve the UK’s output – brokerage Panmure Gordon estimated that the strikes in the first week of 2023 alone cost the economy £625m in productivity – it could have the opposite effect as employees become disaffected. 

It’s going to cause issues. That bit of goodwill that exists in all workforces is going to be diminished

“I believe that growth is necessary to move out of this economic slump and our flatlining productivity,” says Caroline Roberts, a consultant HR director and non-executive director of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust. 

“Anti-strike laws do not seem to be the answer. We need to take the long view. Short-termism got us into this situation, and it won’t get us out of it.”

Roberts suggests that HR departments will already be planning for a change in the law, but that they are on the back foot. This is due to a lack of planning by the government, and a feeling among HR leaders that the proposed law may be illegal under International Labour Organization (ILO) principles. “The loss of protection of automatic unfair dismissal if an employee takes strike action suggests that the enactment of the bill would be highly contested,” Roberts explains. 

With the unions likely to oppose any new legislation, employers may become frozen for fear of enacting new policies based in an uncertain landscape. What’s more, private companies that create policies based on the new legislation may lose out on talent themselves. 

“Depending on the labour market, it could have devastating consequences,” says Roberts. “This law feels like it is of an earlier time – not the age of social media, Glassdoor, employee value propositions and ethical statements.”

Inflaming the issue

Despite the mounting opposition to the anti-strike legislation, the government and its supporters frequently point to the use of minimum service requirements in other major European economies. But, as Bernd Brandl, a professor in management at Durham Business School, explains, these laws are not as far-reaching as the UK government’s proposed legislation. “Such minimum service agreements exist in other countries but those are usually very focused and narrow – for example for the Army or for parts of the police force,” says Brandl. 

And these laws often prove ineffective in stopping industrial action. France’s minimum service requirements, introduced in 2007, have done little to stymie widespread general strikes. 

Brandl anticipates that alternative industrial actions would instead become commonplace, from ‘wildcat strikes’ (action taken without the explicit support of union leadership) to tactics such as ‘work to rule’ and mass absences due to ‘sickness’. 

For this reason, Brandl argues that “such minimum service requirements are not the best route of conflict at all”. He instead suggests taking a more harmonious approach to proceedings, cooling off the “conflictual” relationship between government, employers and workers currently blighting the UK’s economy. 

He recommends that all parties should instead work towards “social pacts”, or tripartite agreements – an informal or codified process in which all sides engage in dialogue to achieve a desired outcome. According to the ILO, such agreements were crucial in “minimising social unrest and large-scale job losses” in Europe following the global financial crisis of 2008.

HR needs to look again at the processes they use to resolve disputes and disagreements

David Liddle, CEO of TCM Group and a mediator between management and workers in the Royal Mail Group salary disputes of 2016, agrees that the tempestuous relationship between the unions and the government is limiting the ability to move ahead constructively. “You can start a conversation by listening to the other party’s position,” says Liddle. “You can still have a tough position, but be empathetic and genuinely listen when we walk into a negotiation.” 

Liddle suggests that the processes typically employed by HR aren’t fit for a world where “draconian” employment legislation is being introduced. Many employees already view the people function as “being on the side of management”, he adds. 

“Many of the HR systems and processes – grievances, disciplinaries, performance processes – in and of themselves are acrimonious, corrosive, divisive and reductive,” he says. “HR needs to look again at the processes they use to resolve disputes and disagreements in the workplace, to create a more human, person-centred and values-based approach, rather than focusing on grievances and resolution.”

How to heal the divide

One idea might be to look at alternative policies such as employee charters – an agreement between unionised workforces and employers that entrench certain rights outside of government guidance. 

But whatever the policy, Price contends that effective communication between employers and employees is crucial to implementing a new working arrangement. “The more employers can communicate, the better,” he says. “Policies such as employee charters still require a collective agreement from recognised trade union position officials, and that communication, that opportunity to really explain what the union feels, what the employee feels, and what the employer feels, must carry all the way through the organisation.” 

To facilitate this, Liddle suggests all HR leaders should undertake mediation training, using the tenets of positive psychology to enter a better dialogue. He believes that these skills, previously seen as “nice-to-have soft skills”, are now fundamental to harmonious and productive workplaces. 

“This is the tough end of the business,” he says. “These skills are the key that unlocks the potential and the brilliance within our organisations. It will help HR to release its vice-like grip on the formal systems and processes, and learn skills like dialogue, compassion and empathy.” 

Done properly – and without the threat of termination being dangled over people’s heads – this should lead to a better future for all parties in unionised negotiations. And not only that, but it should also create better working conditions too, ultimately positioning the people function as a strategic driver of productivity in modern organisations.