New research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests that trade unions are finding new ways to put employers under pressure as industrial action is no longer the threat it once was.

The ‘Managing Employee Relations in difficult times’ report highlights national figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that show the average number of days lost each year due to industrial action has been under 1 million over the last twenty years, in comparison to 12.9 million in the 1970’s and 7.2 million in the 1980’s.

According to the figures, the majority of days lost each year have been in the public sector (92% in 2011) and over half of all days lost have been for one day only.

The CIPD say that despite the decrease in the number of stoppages it does not mean that industrial conflict has gone away, and its report highlights the changing nature of industrial action and the tactics now being deployed by trade unions as they try to get their message heard, which include:

  • Ballots and threats of ballots, for industrial action, used as a tool to persuade employers to negotiate: ONS figures show that in 2011 there were almost 1,000 ballots, of which only 149 were followed by stoppages of work.
  • Street demonstrations, with trade unions making common cause with other community or political groups, such as on the national ‘day of action’ organised by the TUC in September 2011.
  • Threats to damage an employer’s reputation or brand, which can be quite powerful. In some cases simply being subject to industrial action can be seen as damaging by the employer.

Mike Emmott, Employee Relations Adviser at the CIPD, said:

“Media reports of industrial action do not give a particularly helpful picture of the real nature of employee relations (ER). Union tactics have shifted in recent years, reflecting a perception that industrial action organised on traditional lines is no longer a reliable tool for achieving trade union objectives.

“As a result of this shift, the role of employee relations professionals has also moved on. Our research confirms that most ER practitioners focus more on preventing rather than managing conflict. They do not see managing conflict as central to their role as an ER practitioner but they are engaged, day in and day out, with issues directly affecting business performance and are giving essential support to both top management and front-line supervisors to protect the future of the business.”

Part of the research focused on employers relationships with trade unions, and the CIPD suggest that most employers who were involved in the research claim to have a good understanding with trade unions.

The report indicates that many organisations now see trade unions as key stakeholders and as a result try to resolve conflicts.

Commenting on this piece of the findings, Darren Hockaday, HR Director at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd, said:

“Some people might prefer to keep trade unions at arm’s length, but I believe in maintaining a constant relationship that we can all call upon if problems arise. I like to regularly meet with trade union representatives, even if there’s no urgent business to deal with. I place value on nurturing these relationships and believe it leads to better understanding on both sides.”