Partnerships reach record high but strike threats still common

industrial relations: Workplace negotiations still confrontational despite high number of partnership deals

The number of partnership agreements between unions and employers is at an all time high, but industrial relations are still frequently confrontational, a recent report shows.

The annual study of industrial relations by City law firm DLA describes a ‘frenzy’ of partnership activity over the past year, with 700 approaches made by unions. Around 265 deals were agreed while a further 280 are still under negotiation, the research among 207 large employers and 42 trade unions found.

But the good news is soured by widespread balloting for strike action, with four out of 10 unions balloting their members last year and four out of 10 employers experiencing it. Despite embracing partnership agreements, and low levels of actual industrial action, 84% of unions said they still view the threat of strike action as a useful bargaining tool.

Furthermore 72% of employers said managers and shop stewards were not equipped to work in partnership.

Paul Nichols, DLA partner and co-author of the Industrial Relations Survey, which is in its eighth year, said, ‘The rhetoric of partnership is genuine from the leadership but has not yet reached the shopfloor. Shop stewards need training but only 55% of unions are giving training on partnership.’ Dominic Johnson, head of employee relations at the Confederation of British Industry, said the high incidence of balloting, but low number of actual strikes shows that brinkmanship and game playing are still a common feature of employment relations.

‘If the people who are in the front line of employment relations aren’t changing their behaviour then the fine sentiments of any proposed partnership agreement are unlikely to be delivered,’ he said.

Sarah Veale, senior employment rights officer at the TUC, said the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt. ‘We have not yet got to the stage where partnership can be properly assessed,’ she said. ‘Often deals set up as partnerships aren’t, while others that aren’t called partnerships are exactly that in practice. I wouldn’t take this survey as indicating a major trend.’ She agreed that it is difficult to ensure that the message from the top percolates down to the managers and shop stewards putting it into practice.

Dominique Hammond writes for Personnel Toda