Saturday, 12 May 2012

Industrial Disputes - A 21st Century Model

Good News as tanker drivers in the Unite union vote to accept the deal on their dispute over terms and conditions.

In stark contrast to the unyielding and unbending stance of both sides in the public sector pension row, there are lessons to learn from how the tanker drivers approached their dispute and the willingness of the employers to seek a resolution.

The easiest course of action was to call the union's bluff, allow strikes to go ahead and then utilise public anger over queues and petrol shortages to force agreement, imposed or otherwise.

Instead, both sides went down the hardest course of action. To sit together at ACAS and thrash out the issues, to collaboratively cobble together a final deal and persuade the workers to accept it.

Post Wapping and the Miners '84, it is no longer feasible to work through an industrial dispute within the context of a class struggle. More than any anti-trade union law Thatcher introduced, these two events emboldened the employer side making them willing to stare down the unions. This is very clear from Francis Maude's approach towards the pensions dispute and because of this, I cannot see a situation in which a Prime Minister in a position similar to Edward Heath would countenance going to the country over an industrial dispute like he did in 1974.

Instead, these days, industrial disputes are, and should be resolved by negotiation first and working towards the best deal available. This does mean compromise and it really is not a dirty word.

However, it is right that strike action (or the threat of) can and should be used. Changing terms and conditions of a contract, whether written or implied is a breach of contract by the employer. The employees can therefore be justified in responding accordingly, they do not have another recourse in law.

But it has to be a last resort after all else failed. Its obvious that if the tanker drivers had in the end gone on strike, they would have done so if there was no alternative. Instead, we had a grown-up conversation, a grown-up deal and a grown-up resolution to the dispute.

Such a shame that this approach completely by-passed the collective wisdom of Francis Maude and the PCS.

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