The government desperately needs a coherent Industrial Relations strategy

Richard Milsom

June 14, 2022

Rail strikes are set to inflict crippling misery on travellers this summer in the biggest walk out for 33 years. Starting in June, the disruption could last months. Holiday-makers, commuters, day-trippers will all be affected.

This scale of industrial action has not been seen since the 1980s: that’s two generations who will for the first time have to swallow routine-altering disruption and absorb a significant financial hit just at a time when travel, entertainment and working life was returning to post-pandemic normality. Will they, and those on time-precise zero hours contracts, forgive at the ballot box the government’s incoherent industrial relations strategy?

We get it, the public sector is unhappy. This discontent has been building for some time: high inflation coupled with the rising cost of living, combined with wage freezes in the public sector and high demand for professionals and skilled workers in the private sector, have damaged morale in the public sector. The challenge for the unions has been to try to protect their workers’ pay and conditions and offering members a plethora of new services.

Yet the working environment has evolved away from traditional work contracts towards a more dynamic individual-based approach that large lumbering state organisations struggle to keep up with. This is particularly true in the transport sector which requires constant innovation and modernisation to remain solvent; with the looming threat to the workforce of being replaced by technology.

The irony is that the clunking fist of militant union bosses holding the country to ransom this summer through ill-judged industrial action and prolonged strikes affecting public services will actually erode residual support for their movement, adversely affecting workers’ long term prospects. What better argument can there be, in fact, for driverless trains?

It is a difficult task for any government to balance the needs of workers against productivity and output, but we are witnessing the gathering of a perfect storm. It is not just the railways threatening industrial action, but also the London Underground, universities and airport staff. It’s all looking too hot for Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to handle. The real problem, however, is that the current government does not appear to have any industrial relations strategy at all.

The government’s response thus far amounts to the customary pleas for dialogue and negotiation, as well as talking up emergency plans. Ministers have insisted that if the strikes do go ahead, the government will bring in legislation to prevent any repeat of a national rail shutdown – not soon enough to avert any strikes this summer.

Contrast the government reaction to the strike threats with their heavy-handed condemnation of P&O ferries, where the full weight of government came down heavily in favour of the unions against a business that was desperately trying to save itself. P&O knew full well that any approach to the RMT would result in a militant standoff, incurring devastating additional costs to the organisation along with likely fatal strikes that would ultimately have seen 3000 seafarers lose their livelihoods and the sinking of the business.

In the face of fire and brimstone from the Unions, the government and the public alike, P&O did fulfil their obligation to inform the government and, two months on, all but one of P&O’s seafarers has accepted the redundancy package. Indeed, many have been redeployed within the organisation – P&O have thus been able to protect their remaining 2,200 employees and ensure that a 180-year-old true British icon with 20 ships operating 30,000 routes a year continues to sail.

So it is more than a little perplexing that a Conservative transport minister was thinking of bowing to public pressure and considering restrictive measures against an organisation that failed to consult with the Trade Unions in a bid to secure its survival.

From P&O to piano: consider the similarities with the beleaguered West End production of “Cinderella”, whose producers, having stomached large losses from the delayed 2021 opening night onwards, sacked the entire cast overnight in May. Where, then, is the political opprobrium towards Lord Lloyd Webber?

The striking point is that this government cannot hope to succeed in improving industrial relations if it applies double standards. The public sector remains more prone today to labour disputes and Union difficulties than the private sector and has more trouble in generating good employee relations. The government needs a coherent strategy to lift the public sector’s achievement as an employer, whilst pushing through agreed changes to working practices that boost quality and output to reflect the support and investment provided.

At the same time, the more strident union members need to fear that the government can act decisively, whilst the overwhelming moderate majority needs to believe that the government wants to improve the public sector’s performance as an employer and is prepared to listen to good ideas. Ultimately, it is the pivotal role of good government to diffuse industrial disputes in a way that benefits consumers, UK businesses and employees. Such an approach will be long overdue this summer.


Written by Richard Milsom

Richard Milsom is the former Director of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party.

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