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UK — Swingeing cuts to public services could result in mass strike action, says CIPD

06 August 2010

"There are a number of high stakes options open to government in seeking to avoid strike action in the public sector as spending cuts bite, but ultimately only a focus on building public sector leadership and management skills and improving communication and consultation will make a real and lasting difference."

This is the core message from the latest in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's (CIPD) Building Productive Public Sector Workplaces series of reports, which draw on CIPD research to help inform the policy debate over public sector reform. However the report, Developing Positive Employee Relations, also highlights the higher stakes policy options the government should be considering to protect public services if there is an upsurge in industrial unrest, including banning strike action by workers involved in the essential services.

Other policy options open to the government set out in the paper include legislation to require parties to public service disputes to take part in compulsory arbitration prior to industrial action and changes to balloting requirements so that ballots should be counted separately for each employer.

The paper highlights research from the CIPD's quarterly Employee Outlook survey series, showing:
  • Low levels of trust and confidence among public sector employees in senior management teams, just 16% of public sector employees say they trust their senior leaders.
  • 54% of public sector staff agree most people today are not willing to lose pay by going on strike, compared to 47% in the private sector.
  • More than four in ten employees are in favour of banning public sector workers involved in the delivery of essential services from striking.
Mike Emmott, CIPD Employee Relations Adviser, believes a sustained focus by government and public service employers on improving the leadership skills of public sector management, providing meaningful consultation opportunities for staff and more effective communication would help win hearts and minds and build a more engaged workforce despite the turbulence of change.
"Trade unions have the power to disrupt only if employees trust them more than they trust management. The fundamental need is not to 'manage the trade unions' it is to manage the employment relationship and communicate the case for change."

"However it is also incumbent on the government to consider the policy options open to it for reducing the risk of disruptive and damaging industrial action by public service employees, such as banning strike action of those involved in the delivery of essential services. If the government was forced to go down this route it would be a sign of its failure to make the case for change to public sector employees."

"Government must strive to avoid this situation at all costs as it would mean any attempt at trying to lead though consensus had failed. For the unions too, the stakes are high, if they overplay their hand and take industrial action on issues where they don't have public sympathy they will create conditions which make it more likely that the government will implement one of the measures outlined in this paper, aimed at blunting the threat of strike action."

"Both sides have heavy duty weapons available to them but neither has much to gain from deploying them. Unions, government, frontline workers and public alike have far more to gain from a strategy focused on building trust and avoiding conflict."



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