With wages failing to keep up with the rise of inflation, and a recession likely on the way, the UK is facing a cost of living crisis. As a result, there has been an increase in the number of unions voting to strike in a bid to protect its members’ rights.

We outline what the increased industrial action means for employers and why business leaders need to plan and act now to achieve a balance between the interests of the business and the interests of their employees.

Why are unions striking?

Strike action is not taken lightly by unions and is often only used as a last resort when employees become truly unhappy. However, as economic pressures begin forcing people to change their spending behaviours and make sacrifices, collective action through trade unions is, once again, becoming a popular choice as a way of trying to improve working conditions and pay.

According to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, over 6.5 million employees joined a trade union in 2020, an increase of 118,000 from the previous year.

Union strikes cause numerous issues for businesses. Therefore, employers should take measures to prevent industrial action from taking place in the first instance. This not only minimises the disruption that strikes can bring, but it also helps foster positivity within the workforce too.

8 steps to minimise the risk of strike action in your business

  1. Make sure your employees feel they are treated fairly

Fair pay, good working conditions and clear HR procedures all provide good foundations for ensuring that your employees feel valued. If your workforce are happy then they won’t feel the need to take industrial action. If you can do your utmost to keep your employees’ best interests at the forefront of any business decisions (to the extent that’s possible in the current business financial position), then this will potentially inspire those who are genuinely invested in the business and, as a result, is less likely to lead to industrial action.

  1. Communication is key

Even with the best intentions, it won’t always be possible to meet the demands of your employees, especially if the business is going through financial difficulties. If there is a dispute with working conditions or pay, it’s essential that there is clear and regular communication with your employees – if they’re informed about the position the business is currently in then they may be more willing to be flexible and work with you to reach a solution.

  1. Ensure you’re compliant with the recognition agreement

The recognition agreement between an employer and the trade union sets out what matters will be discussed, how these conversations will take place and what information can be shared. If there are disputes with your employees, and therefore negotiations are necessary, it is essential that you follow the rules set out in the recognition agreement. Failure to comply with these is likely to result in a longer process, as well as increasing the potential for further disputes.

  1. Consult a legal professional

If the trade union ballots its workforce for industrial action then you should consult a legal professional to ensure the technical process is being followed lawfully. Lawyers are only likely to become directly involved in negotiations if the matter becomes litigious, for example if the employer wants to question the validity of the ballot.

  1. Work with the trade union

You should always aim to work with the union representatives as a trade union has the legal right to potentially force you to collectively bargain if you refuses to negotiate. It is in your best interest to communicate rather than being forced by way of legal process.

  1. Stay professional

If discussions get heated then you should adjourn to allow tempers to settle. Allowing both sides to “take a minute” is far more likely to lead to a more productive outcome and compromise.

  1. Use a mediator

An independent third party, such as a mediator or an arbitrator, can be used if negotiations with the trade union reach a standstill or become too heated. This option can facilitate a more focussed discussion, making negotiations more productive.

  1. If all else fails…

If negotiations fail and industrial strike action is called then you need to maintain frequent communication with the union, and your employees. Just because a trade union is involved it doesn’t mean you can’t talk to your own employees directly to explain why you feel your offer is a fair one. However, it’s important to note that, legally, you cannot negotiate or put forward any other offer directly with your employees – you must go through the trade union.

Prevention is better than cure

Industrial action is nearly always used as a last resort as, by striking, employees are giving up a day (or more) of their wages – which clearly they would rather not do. Therefore, avoiding industrial action in the first place is in the best interests for employers and employees. Ensuring that fair pay and working conditions are in place from the outset will go a long way to help avoid industrial action further down the line.

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Tom is ranked as a Next Generation Partner in the Legal 500 United Kingdom 2022 edition and is also part of a team ranked as a Top Tier Firm for Education in the same edition. Tom works with employers to prevent and resolve people issues, to ensure their organisations continue to work efficiently and effectively.

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Published: 4th August 2022
Area: Corporate & Commercial

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