Ashley Bookman: London tube strikes – what can be done?

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Back in February, it was difficult to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV without being faced with images of Londoners battling to get to work during the latest tube strike. And nowTube workers in London are to take five days of strike action in the coming weeks over ticket office closures, the RMT has said.

Members of the union will walk out from 9pm on Monday April 28 for two days and again from 9pm on Monday May 5 for three days.

The row is around London Underground management – seeking to save £50m per annum – announcing the discontinuation of all 260 manned ticket offices with the loss of 950 jobs, though without any compulsory redundancies.

As is often the case, both sides have adopted differing positions and, with little or no discussion taking place, strike action has been the outcome. The cost of this industrial action to the London economy and the wider UK economy has been estimated at millions.

Many negotiations often follow a pattern in which a ‘them and us’ mind-set drives both parties to take progressively fixed positions. In this situation, if either ‘side’ shifts their stance, they risk losing face in the eyes of the organisations they represent and the public in general. So this type of negotiation typically leaves its participants with an underlying sense of dissatisfaction and, regardless of the outcome, often leads to a need to somehow claim a hollow victory to manage stakeholder expectations.

It is of course not a novel idea to suggest that a more collaborative approach is likely to deliver a better result for all parties; but whilst most people buy into the concept of collaboration, either their good intentions from the outset are lost, or pressure to ‘win’ causes retaliation or forceful and threatening manoeuvres.

However, it is possible that both parties can use collaboration as a tool to reach a mutually healthy outcome. And it’s not by compromise…

It’s challenging for both sides to break free from the shackles of the traditional ‘them and us’ mind-set. This natural tendency to revert to type is exacerbated because the majority of negotiators are untrained in any other approach.  As a result, there is an attitude of sticking to the way it’s always been done, which covers up for the lack of practical alternative.

To make progress, management and unions can be more conciliatory, and more understanding of the different mind-sets that caused the issue to arise in the first place. After all, in the case of the London Tube strikes, both parties had a reasonable argument for their ‘position’.

Transport For London are seeking to save £50m and hoped that closing ticketing offices would allow it to free up space for cash generating retail outlets – a seemingly sound commercial proposal.

However the unions are concerned about the safety of staff and passengers as the proposal would mean that about 125 stations would be served by only one member of staff.

In such a situation, it’s no surprise that a deadlock is reached and the next step known to take is escalation. Both parties seek to further their position by gaining public sympathy, and soon the worthwhile essence of the negotiation is drowned by a media circus and the drama of public theatre. The subject is then who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ (often decided by whom ever staged the show rather than a true understanding of influential facts) and who will ‘win’ rather than the effort of reaching a workable solution for all parties.

It takes significant commitment to learn the mind-set required to exchange these sometimes negative conversations for intelligent, rational and sustainable decisions. This new approach effectively avoids the potential for damaging efficiency measures in both public and private sectors.

By adopting a new foundation for a more fundamental culture change, you can progressively dilute the ‘them and us’ mind-set, thus reducing the likelihood of subsequent dispute.  Experience shows that without this fundamental shift in thinking, difficulties in industrial relations often resurface either through a resurgence of an old dispute, or through the emergence of a new subject to provide fodder for the on-going power struggle.

As both sides are fully aware of all the relevant facts, trust can then be built and both sides can start to engage equally in problem-solving conversations. Critically, it is important to recognise that both sides have something relevant to contribute to achieving a solution.

But if peace is to break out on the London Underground, there has to be mutual recognition of the key drivers for both sides in this damaging dispute. For any change to have a chance of being validated by the unions, it must first be transparent and then actively engaged with, opening up collaborative links and better on-going relations from the outset, rather than going to them with the final proposals and trying to push through the required change.

Key to guaranteeing the success of the process is having both parties agree to a culture change and declaring themselves open to embracing this fresh way of thinking in undertaking negotiations.

Adopting this approach means no stone is left unturned in the quest for an outcome where common goals can be realised. Divisive issues only fuel the positional mind-set and mean that mutually satisfactory outcomes are more difficult to find, so they must be handled carefully and with sympathy for differing viewpoints.

This fresh, non-confrontational approach delivers clear, non-ideological-influenced solutions to which both participants have contributed and have a stake in seeing through to a successful conclusion.

If both parties had been allowed to collaborate on how best to trim £50m from managing body Transport for London’s budget, instead of the closure of ticket offices being presented to the workforce as a ‘fait accompli’, then with involvement from the union, I expect that Londoners might have been saved at least some of the misery.

It can be surprising how often you are able to facilitate solutions and outcomes that would not have been imagined if the original stubborn and reactive attitudes of participants had not been eased. It is also surprising how many fresh and collaborative ideas are generated when the mind-set is more positive and on side.

For example, could the ticket office workers be offered jobs in the proposed retail outlets? If TFL were to insist that the new leaseholders of the kiosks employed at least one member of staff who also had TFL station training, in the case of an emergency more than one TFL operator would be on hand. This might address the Union’s safety concerns, promote the employment of the workers and assist TFL’s need to operate in a commercial fashion.

This open discussion and joint problem-solving approach also reduces the chances of further episodes of escalation and strikes in the future. That’s probably the most intelligent and sustainable way to truly impress the public – and keep them happy to pay for and use TFL services in the future.

Last year, Momentum assisted with a Scottish Fire Service reform which involved transforming eight different regions into one Scottish National Fire and Rescue Service. Here, working groups of both Fire Service managers and FBU members worked collaboratively to find the best solution for some of the questions that such a marked transition raises.

Significant variations across the eight Fire Brigades ranged from crewing levels, shift patterns, and the role of full-time, on-call retained or volunteer fire fighters, to how preventative work should be targeted.

It was also found that there were limited examples of sharing support services such as ICT, human resources or procurement, either between different fire and rescue services or other emergency services, such as police or ambulance.

Despite these differences, a different approach appeared to work very well, using collaboration rather than aggression. Furthermore, by approaching the issue in a neutral setting, this provided a new foundation on which a completely different relationship could be built.

Secretary of the FBU for Scotland, John Duffy said: “On 1st April 2013 the eight Fire Brigades in Scotland were brought together and merged in to a single Scottish Fire & Rescue Service.

“Far from being the merger of eight organisations all doing the same thing, the new entity had to align a variety of substantial differences reflecting geography, scale, function and history.

“The impact on over 9000 staff brought significant difficulties, especially given the traditionally hostile relationships with the Fire Brigades Union.

“Working with a new mind-set, the executive and senior officers alongside FBU national and local reps created a merger process that led to a simple, conflict-free handover with no break in the service provided to the communities of Scotland.

“On looking back, the scale of what was achieved and the way it was developed is hugely impressive and something that we are rightly proud of.”

The collaborative approach helped achieve a peaceful transition in turning Scotland’s eight regional fire services into one national body.

In a similar vein, we found that British Airways quickly understood that positional situations were not advantageous, and discovered that working together and fully engaging in handling challenges represented a positive move forward. There’s inevitably a degree of complexity that arises, but you need to be entirely fluid and not rigid in your approach.

There can often be pre-supposition that a proposal will not work, and union negotiations can become inflamed simply by management failing to fully engage with the practical implications of what situations staff encounter on a daily basis. For instance, engineers felt that the mileage they routinely clocked up by travelling from aircraft to aircraft was not taken into account or understood by management.

The advice here is to attempt to reduce costs intelligently without isolating factors that may result in barriers being put up. Progressive attitudes must be adopted to ensure the best solution for the business, its staff and union representatives. Similarly, getting disparate team members from different strands to liaise more closely and work better together can have huge benefits.

Steve Bond, General Manager, British Airways Operational Maintenance, said: “Adopting new approaches assisted British Airways Engineering in many ways when negotiating with the trade unions.  By being willing not to hold fixed positions or views, it was easier to achieve ownership and buy-in for all involved to resolve the problem.

“This was demonstrated when one significant negotiation took us to a solution that wasn’t even considered at the outset, and that works better than anything either group had thought and initially discussed. We would have struggled to do this several years ago.”

Ashley Bookman, Director of Momentum

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