‘Trouble ahead’ as lawyers predict collapse in industrial relations

As union bosses talk of frustration with Government policy and the likelihood of industrial action to come at the TUC conference in Brighton this week, recent research by law firm DLA into the deterioration of UK industrial relations makes for an interesting read.

According to DLA’s eleventh annual industrial relations survey, UK bosses faced almost twice as much strike action over the past 12 months as they did the previous year.

“Following a decade of relatively benign conditions, the UK appears to be in a period of general decline in terms of the levels of industrial unrest and its impact on the economy,” commented David Bradley, head of employment law at DLA and author of the survey. “The public and recently privatised private sectors will continue to be a focus for industrial action over the coming year.”

According to the research, which polled 370 employers with more than 1.7 million employees, as well as 22 trade unions, the public sector was especially active, with 44 per cent of employers facing strike action (twice the figure from last year) compared with an overall industry figure of 22 per cent (up 10 per cent on the previous year). More than one in three of the public sector employers surveyed were expecting worse to come. Across all sectors, 48 per cent of employers expect an increase in industrial unrest such as ballots, actions short of a strike and strike action next year.

According to Bradley, the heavily promoted concept of partnerships between employers and trade unions would not be capable of meeting the challenges faced over the coming 12 months. “In theory, partnerships should have a real prospect of transforming UK industrial relations into an environment where mature debate leads to the resolution of difficult issues,” he commented. “However, a disinclination by trade unions to offer a modified approach in the public sector, and the suspicion that employers in the private sector are uncomfortable with supplying sufficient information to provide a foundation for that debate, does not augur well.”

The survey also sought responses from employers and trade unions on areas of new legislation. Topping the list of concerns for employers were the new flexible working regulations, particularly relating to the use of agency workers. In contrast, the research revealed that the right to have employment rights from day one in work was the unions’ chief concern, as well as seeking greater influence over employment policy and the introduction of compulsory pay audits to close the gender pay gap.

The research also asked employers and unions to identify where they go for advice when industrial relations disputes arise. Lawyers came out well with 62 per cent of respondents turning to law firms, ACAS being the next port of call with 38 per cent and just 22 per cent relying on their own services.