As discontent spreads in workplaces where pay is declining in real terms, more and more employees – unionised or not – are taking unofficial industrial action. How can businesses best manage the risk?
“There’s no respect and they work us like robots,” said an employee at Amazon UK’s Swindon warehouse, explaining his colleagues’ decision to down tools and stage a canteen sit-in on 8 August. Angered by a pay deal offering an increase of 35p per hour, among other moves by the company, workers at several of its other depots around the country soon followed suit.
What has set these disputes apart from the dozens of others that have occurred during the UK’s summer of strikes is that, unlike railway staff, dockers and refuse collectors, the Amazon workers acted without the backing of a trade union. Similar unofficial strikes have been breaking out in workplaces ranging from North Sea oil rigs to food factories.
These stoppages tend to be more spontaneous and short-lived than those organised by unions. Known as wildcat strikes in cases where a workforce is unionised but workers take action without going through the approved procedures, such acts are also illegal. Nonetheless, they can still pose serious problems for employers, damaging productivity, morale and public relations.
Compared with most other European countries, the UK has seen few wildcat strikes in recent years, but that may well change if the economy continues to falter as predicted. That’s the view of Dr Manuela Galetto, associate professor in employment relations at Warwick Business School.
“The cost-of-living crisis is ramping up and there is certainly discontent,” she says, suggesting that workers taking unofficial action – which could cost them their jobs – may feel they have less to lose, given that the recruitment market is generally weighted in their favour. Nearly half (47%) of UK employers are struggling to fill vacancies, according to the latest research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD).
Another CIPD survey has found that 53% of companies think the country is entering a more unstable period of employment relations, while 42% expect to see increasing levels of industrial action over the next year. So how can employers best manage this heightened risk?
Preparing for potential strikes
Adrian Martin is a partner at law firm Burges Salmon, where he leads the employment team. His advice to employers is to “do all you can to prevent wildcat strikes from arising. Try to maintain as much engagement with your employees as possible.”
That should include being open about tough choices. For instance, if inflation-lagging pay offers are an issue, the management may need to explain how inflation is affecting the business.
“If you’re offering a certain pay increase, explain why that’s the figure you’ve chosen and why higher amounts aren’t affordable,” Martin says. “Try to use neutral, non-emotive language and perhaps give some objective examples to illustrate your points.”
Paul Atkinson, an employee relations consultant who has worked in the oil and gas sector for 30 years, advises business leaders to stay closely attuned to what’s happening on the front line. They should make regular site visits and seek supervisors’ views to anticipate any potential problems.
“Be aware of what is happening with your workforce, especially on the shop floor,” he stresses.
Making contingency plans for potential industrial action is also vital. Many companies without a history of unionisation tend to be relatively unprepared for tough negotiations with disgruntled workers. Some may not even have decided which members of the management team should take responsibility for such a task.
Atkinson believes that it should be managers on the operations side of the business rather than the HR function, as the former is closer to the heart of the enterprise – and “sometimes this is not about motherhood and apple pie”.
These managers should be trained to negotiate, he says, adding: “You should always have plans ready. Even if they go out of the window in the fog of war, at least you have a starting point.”
When wildcat strikes happen
Unionised employees in a workplace who have gone through the correct procedures and balloted successfully for a strike are granted protections under UK law. For instance, although they don’t have to be paid for any hours they refuse to work, they cannot be dismissed for withdrawing their labour.
This is not the case for non-organised industrial action. In theory, that makes it easier for employers to bring it to an end, including by terminating people’s contracts of employment. But Martin believes that such a “drastic step” is best avoided.
“Thinking about dismissal should be very much a last resort. It’s not something that should be done lightly,” he warns. “The law relating to industrial action is complicated. If you’re doing anything detrimental to an employee in some way, you’ll need to think through the potential consequences carefully.”
Dismissing some striking workers but not others could lead to discrimination claims, for instance. Even threatening dismissal is risky, Martin notes, “because that will simply make matters more heated instead of helping you to find a way forward”.
Atkinson agrees, adding that employers should consider not only the operational impact of dismissing competent workers, especially when skills may be in short supply, but also how such a move would affect a firm’s reputation.
“PR-wise, it can be a disaster,” he says. “A lot of the battle these days plays out in the media.”
The widespread sharing on social media of videos shot by Amazon workers illustrates Atkinson’s point. The company was forced to apologise after a manager at the Swindon depot was caught on camera comparing staff to “animals”. Workers at other warehouses were inspired to walk out after watching footage of earlier Amazon protests on TikTok, according to socialist collective Notes from Below.
The role of trade unions
When in doubt, management should seek to involve any relevant union. Atkinson cites his experience of dealing with a wildcat stoppage involving 1,500 people on an oil rig. Although the workers’ trade union was unaware of the action at first, it moved quickly to negotiate on their behalf and resolve the dispute when it found out.
This illustrates how wildcat strikes are a risk even in workplaces with a strong union presence. Slow-moving strike ballot processes, a failure to reach a vote threshold or a sudden change in conditions can prompt rank-and-file members to take matters into their own hands.
Although many companies – including Amazon UK – have campaigned strongly against unionisation in their workplaces, Atkinson believes that unions can be helpful to employers.
“It can delay some processes, but at least there is someone experienced whom you can negotiate with if there’s industrial action, rather than people who think you’ll just roll over and give them what they want,” he says.
For her part, Galetto has observed “a bit of rhetoric around how unions can be scary, confrontational and adversarial. In my experience, they can be good allies in solving problems for the employees, especially when it comes to collective demands.”
Despite these benefits for staff and employers, union membership has been falling steadily in the UK since the 1920s. As the economy continues to struggle, more and more workers may feel that unofficial strike action is the only way to secure a pay rise that will keep pace with inflation. A return to the mass walkouts of the 1970s may be unlikely, but it’s clear that employers can no longer be complacent about the risk of industrial unrest in the workplace.