Callum Murray: Behind the scenes of industrial disputes

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‘Rationalisation’, ‘restructuring’ and ‘sustainability’ are three key terms referred to within press releases and speeches in the House of Commons last week; however, for those within the shipbuilding industry, based in Portsmouth and Glasgow, ‘job losses’, ‘cuts’ and ‘redundancy’ might well be the words ringing in their ears.

Following last week’s announcements by BAE Systems around the reduction of labour across the UK, it appears a long term strategic decision has come to fruition with regards to defence policy and the supply and demand of naval hardware to the Ministry of Defence in the foreseeable future.

With large scale redundancies looming, strikes in various sectors and suggested ‘strong arm leverage’ tactics by trade unions involving inflatable rats and demonstrations, as seen in the recent dispute with INEOS at Grangemouth; so what strategies are likely to be employed to allow an interest-based and best possible outcome for all involved?

With a multi-party dispute involving key players from shareholders, workers, unions and politicians, there are a wide range of push-and-pull factors to consider, with varying outcomes and priorities affecting the participants’ decision-making. In the fight to retain jobs, skills and ensure ongoing economic benefit, is it now time to mediate rather than call for strikes?

It is likely that mediation or collective conciliation has already been employed in-house at BAE Systems to arrive at the current position. Taking into account the previous instances of industrial unrest within BAE Systems during the last decade, combined with fluctuations in market conditions and order books leaves no option but to restructure. Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and their conciliation teams will already have close ties with relevant company executives.

Given the confidential nature of a mediation process, the extent of its use and undertaking cannot be confirmed further than understanding that BAE Systems currently implement its use as a clause for dispute resolution within their supply chain. Mediation is used as a process of alternative dispute resolution worldwide and is accepted as a pre-trial process in English law. Furthermore, it is advocated, where applicable, in the best interests of a client under a recent Law Society of Scotland regulatory update. Often a mediated or conciliation based settlement will be referred to as a case settled out of court.

In cases which feature potential mass redundancy, large scale dispute or possible strike action, Acas is often called upon by organisations or companies to assist in a process of collective conciliation or facilitative mediation.

It has been broadly represented in the media of late that the circumstances surrounding the BAE Systems scenario indicate a lack of combative or collective interest amongst the working population affected by the job losses to strike. Workers who left the yards expressed their worries and feelings of disappointment, but admitted the announcement did not come as a surprise.

Alex Taylor, 63, a Glasgow-based ship worker at the BAE Systems’ yard in Govan, was quoted by BBC News: “We’ve known for a while that the workload isn’t there to carry the number of people that we had building the carriers, but hopefully voluntary redundancies will take up the slack.”

He added that those affected by the job cuts at Portsmouth were “working class guys, the same as ourselves.

He continued: “We’re obviously relieved that things are looking better for the Clyde, but that doesn’t mean to say that we’ve not got feelings for our comrades in Portsmouth”

Penny Mordaunt, the Conservative MP for Portsmouth North, expressed her viewpoint in saying: “I don’t think industrial action or strikes are going to help us get to where we need to be.”

Without commenting on political, location-based arguments or bias, it appears that those affected have been subject to internal HR briefings and communications. Generally speaking, if a working population has a clear understanding and acceptance of the business decision directly affecting them, they may empathise, or at least understand, a facts-based outcome.

Through the use of effective and strategically-aware HR policies, which engage and support workers whilst fostering a positive culture and communicating all commercial requirements, the level of emotion and unrest can be minimised. This will, of course, be affected by media, unions and other personal and financial factors of a particular situation.

After identifying and acknowledging the role of Acas on an industrial scale after a dispute has occurred, the employer looks to this service as an unbiased, non-judgmental facilitator of discussion to aid settlement prior to a public process. A consultation process between a company and a union which involves Acas in a conciliatory role will typically commence immediately after any public announcements are made. The role of the conciliator or mediator is to work towards an interests-based outcome, involving the participants without passing comment or judgment upon employment rights or laws.

The success level of collective conciliation or facilitative mediation of disputes consistently stands between 85 – 90 per cent. Could an HR department therefore benefit from the addition of mediation to its skill set? Should mediation be embedded even further in an organisation to a departmental or operational level? If in-house mediation was implemented prior to or during the decision-making process, it may be found that escalation of disputes are controlled to a manageable level, negating the requirement for trade union consultations or adversarial scenarios, be they on an industrial or SME scale.

Workplace mediation must be examined and approached outwith the realms of commercial mediation, which is primarily linear in process and may end in costly, public and drawn out litigation. Offering an in-house mediation service to resolve minor issues might be viewed as costly, time consuming or unnecessary, but, on the other hand, it might be seen to be hugely beneficial, depending upon departmental structures and internal hierarchical conflicts.

Quantifying conflict in terms of loss of productivity, low morale and reduced employee engagement might validate the need for training of one or several individuals within an HR department.

There are of course notable instances where conciliation or mediation appears to have been unsuccessful in initial resolution which has then lead to strike action:

  1. British Airways – cabin crew strikes over pensions, circa 2007
  2. Petro-chemical dispute: Grangemouth, 2013
  3. Fire services strikes 2002 (now likely to repeat in 2013 over pensions)

On these occasions the strike action is not necessarily indicative of failure as such, moreover it may be an unavoidable process to go through before real progress is made and further negotiations are undertaken.

HM government and the judiciary are very much pro-mediation and of course instrumental in the use of Acas as a statutory body following the creation of the Employment Protection Act 1975. Propaganda is expected from all sides involved but the question then arises as to who comes to the table to talk first?

Once the public or media-based arguments are heard and any private discussion is concluded to no avail, the aggrieved employees will strike. The terms of an impasse are fulfilled, the ultimate threat is carried out and the participants then return to talks and move towards settlement or resolution.

Conflict, whether armed or industrial, will continue in many shapes and forms globally given financial, religious and political drivers surrounding their existence. The means and options to engage this conflict are varied. An understanding of relevant strategies, systems and processes to assist resolution is vitally important for key decision-makers and leaders in the years and decades ahead given the socioeconomic outcomes reliant upon this very human related issue.

Callum Murray is a Director of Murray & Duncan, who offer mediation services in particular to workplace and employment companies.

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