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Sunday, 14 March 2010

The rights and wrongs of strikes – BA versus UNITE

Before I develop my argument on the rights and wrongs of strikes, let me say a word about the current relationship of trades unions - especially UNITE and the Scottish membership of trades unions – to the Labour Party.

Today, Andrew Marr interviewed Lord Adonis on the Unite-British Airways dispute. The noble Lord condemned the strike unequivocally and laid the blame squarely at the union’s door. He might as well have been a mouthpiece for Willie Walsh of BA.

When will Unite - and the trades unions in general - wake up to the fact that they are bankrolling a party that doesn't give a damn about them or their members? The only excuse for English trades unionists is that the Tories are even worse and the LibDems apparently unelectable, but there is no such excuse for Scottish trades unionists.

Sever the link with Labour - only the SNP cares about Scots, Scots trades unionists and Scottish working people.

I spent most of my employed working life dealing as an industrial relations specialist with trades unions, and a large part of my consulting practice - from the late 1980s up to about 2004 - related to industrial relations and the training of directors and managers in negotiating skills and collective bargaining on terms and conditions and change agendas, including analysing the dynamics of employer/trade union disputes and their escalation from deadlock through strike threats to strikes or other forms of industrial action, e.g. working to rule, sit-ins.

I was a staff union member (ASSET and ACTSS) for brief periods in my early career, and I was a staff representative and was once on strike for recognition of a staff union against my American employer of the time, Goodyear. (I was in the Personnel department at the time!)

So I can reasonably claim some expertise on these matters.

There are a few golden rules and principles for dealing with escalating crises in labour relations negotiations, and for actual strikes.

1. A strike threat is not a strike, even when it is accompanied by a ballot for strike action and a deadline for its commencement – it is a bargaining tactic.

2. A strike is an action of last resort for a responsible union, when all other avenues for agreement seem to be exhausted, just as is unilateral implementation of change by management.

3. An offer made and rejected is an offer that is off the table, e.g. if one party makes an offer, and it is rejected and followed by a strike, the party that rejected the offer cannot regard it as still extant while a strike threat is extant or after a strike ends without agreement. It can only be a reference point in recommenced negotiations.

For example, if management makes an offer that is rejected, the union cannot claim that it is still on the table after the rejection unless management chooses to regard it as such. Conversely, if the union offers a settlement and it is rejected by management, the same applies.

4. During the lead-up to a strike, i.e. before employees actually hit the street, both management and union should embargo any comments to the press, other than the most anodyne, e.g. “we are still hopeful of a settlement and negotiations are continuing.” Negative comments, attacking the intransigence and sheer bloody mindedness of the other party are particularly damaging.

5. The interests of the media during crisis periods in negotiation are not those of either of the parties to the negotiation – media commentators are usually simplistic in analysis, and deficient in understanding of the most basic facts of negotiating dynamics, politically biased, and their reporting is aimed at sensationalising the impending conflict.

It can be argued that the media brought down the Heath Government in early 1974 by wilfully misunderstanding – if not misrepresenting – the nature of the miners’ union opening demand, one that they never remotely expected to achieve. Heath was fool enough to believe the media, rather than the experienced managers dealing with the negotiations. The figures on the costs of settlement were also deeply flawed.

6. A strike is created by two parties, not one. It takes two to tango – a deadlock is never one-sided. One party is refusing to meet the other party’s terms – both create the deadlock and the ultimate breakdown.  Experienced negotiators and mature organisations accept this reality.

Does that mean that both parties’ demands are justified? Not necessarily, but if one party lacks realism – or compassion, or values –it is the job of the other to get them to see reason by dialogue. If they fail in this, then the strike, providing it is legal, must be accepted as the necessary cost of bringing about a more balanced view. So it is in conflict between nations, even though the conflict may destroy both sides. (The UK is now prepared to talk turkey to the Taliban after nine years!)

7. Once the strike commences, the gloves are off – in comment terms, in media publicity, in exerting legal pressures on the other side, etc. but during this period of the strike, a critical consideration must be - what terms will be necessary to secure a return to work, and how can open channels of communication be maintained?


It seems to me that BA has been deficient over many years in most aspects of its employee relations, and lacking in understanding of most of the above principles - with the exception of principle 3 - and that its communications have been lamentable. Willie Walsh seems to have been trying, by his intemperate comments, to exacerbate the dispute rather than resolve it.

But BA has also been the victim of the media’s reflex identification with the company rather than the union and its members, casting UNITE as the villains of the piece. Far from helping the company, the media have deepened the sense of injustice felt by the workforce, thus exacerbating already poor employee relations.

Perhaps the fundamental thing to remember is this – that all goods and service have a cost to a company, and those costs must be arrived at by negotiation with suppliers. Although the UNITE union is not a supplier of labour, it nonetheless is the co-determiner of the terms and conditions of its members in their capacity as BA employees.

Unless BA can develop a successful strategy of negotiating these terms and conditions, which by definition involves treating its employees as human beings, communicating effectively with them and gaining their trust, it only has two other options – de-unionise or close down. Both of these are Armageddon strategies, but that’s where this least sensitive of companies appears to be heading.

Willie Walsh needs to zip his lip, unless he has something constructive to say, and so do the media until this dispute is resolved.

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