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Alex Blyth




Personnel Today

Back to the 70s?

A series of high profile industrial disputes in the first few months of 2004 have led some to wonder if we are seeing the return of employee unrest.
On the 16th and 17th February 85,000 members of the Public and Commercial Service union (PCS) staged a two-day strike following a breakdown in pay negotiations. The civil servants, primarily dealing with pensions, and work at job centres and the Child Support Agency, staged a second two-day strike on 13th and 14th April. On this second strike they were joined by about 4,500 Prison Service employees.
A spokesperson for the PCS, explained the problem: “3.7% pay increases offered by the Treasury would lead to pay cuts in real terms for some members. We spent over six months negotiating with the Department of Work &Pensions but were making no real progress. The DWP seemed determined to impose pay structures in a very aggressive manner. We’re keen to restore good relations but need the DWP to move from its entrenched position and work with us to find common ground. So far it just isn’t doing that.”
Rail workers have been threatening to strike, after officials from the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) rejected a 3% pay offer and planned pension changes as part of a deal from Network Rail. The Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) has also decided to ask 7,000 workers in Network Rail to vote on striking over similar concerns. The possible strike would be the largest action in the industry for a decade.
Staff at Oxford's main sorting office walked out on 30th March claiming that allegations of bullying were not being taken seriously by bosses. It lasted around three weeks, involved 400 workers, and resulted in severe delays to more than four million items of post.
At the end of March, University lecturers suspended strike action over pay. Land Rover staff voted in February to settle a pay dispute dating from November. They agreed a revised pay offer after mounting two 24-hour strikes.
Mike Emmott, Employee Relations Adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development is adamant that unrest in the first quarter of 2004 is not an indication of a broader breakdown in industrial relations: “The trouble we are seeing is almost all in the public sector. That is consistent with recent years and is a result of several factors. Private sector unionisation is less than 20%, and it is well over 50% in many parts of the public sector. Our surveys show much less employee satisfaction in the public sector and particularly a very low level of trust of managers.” He advises departments like the DWP to take people management more seriously and to develop human resource strategies beyond immediate political initiatives.

A look at figures from the Office of National Statistics suggests that Emmott is right to play down fears over renewed union militancy. 2003 figures showed a drop of around 60% in the total number of days lost to strikes compared to 2002. In 2003 only about 20 days were lost to strike action per 1,000 employees. The EU average is above 100 days.

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