How Organisations Should Prepare to Face Increasing Industrial Unrest?

Industrial Unrest

By David Liddle

Industrial unrest is escalating across Europe.  In recent months there have been dockworker strikes in Germany, and industrial action by teachers, health, oil and transport workers in France.  Thousands of Spanish workers recently took part in a mass protest to demand higher pay.   The UK has been particularly badly hit, with significant disruption to the rail, telecommunications, postal and legal industry, and staff across the UK’s health sector are now engaged in industrial action.

In its 2022 Guide to European Strikes and Industrial Action, legal experts Eversheds Sutherlands report on several new and emerging trends, including disputes involving international, not just national issues, and trade unions and workers collaborating across borders.  

What is behind this avalanche of industrial unrest?  What do organizations need to do to restore harmony, re-establish good working relationships with their staff and reduce the costly disruption being caused to their operations?

A complex picture

A number of factors have combined to produce the fractured industrial relations landscape we currently find ourselves in. A combination of political and economic instability, the cost-of-living crisis and the impact of the war in Ukraine have created a ticking industrial relations ‘time bomb’.  

But it’s not just external factors that are leading to this widespread breakdown in employer-employee relations.  The lack of an effective infrastructure in our organizations for resolving labor disputes is also a key factor.  Leaders have been lulled into a false sense of security by the relatively stable industrial relations we have seen over the past 20 years, and in many cases have failed to renew (or put in place), the important partnership agreements and social contracts that are designed to act as a guide for the way disputes get resolved.  

In the absence of these agreements, communication between management, HR and unions breaks down and problems that could be resolved by compassionate, collaborative, face-to-face dialogue are allowed to escalate.  Discussions tip over into bitter and angry exchanges, positions become entrenched and before too long, unions are calling their members out on strike, because they perceive there is no alternative way forward.

This industrial relations impasse is also a reflection of the way organizations tend to deal with any form of workplace conflict – whether unions are involved or not.  Leaders are relying on damaging and divisive formal grievance policies and punitive performance management processes, which are out of date, and out of place in the emerging agile and hybrid world of work.  Cultures have become increasingly toxic and the social contract that exists between employers and their people has broken down. 

Constructive dialogue

Whilst I fully support employees’ right to withdraw labor if they feel they are being treated unjustly, industrial action is a sign of a failed industrial and employee relations landscape.  Dig beneath the surface of any dispute, and you will generally find deep-rooted cultural and systemic issues which should have been dealt with long before the spectre of a strike emerged.  

Ultimately, the only way any dispute is resolved is for the parties to engage in the 3 P’s of good industrial relations – purposeful, positive and proactive dialogue.  In other words, unions and employers need to get around the table, engage in constructive dialogue and compromise until they can find consensus and identify a way forward.  This is not a comfortable or easy process, particularly when a situation becomes highly adversarial and parties are attempting to work together amidst a surrounding media circus.

This is where seeking the help of independent, third party mediators can help.  These objective and neutral facilitators can often help both sides step away from the brink and emerge with their pride (and the organization) intact.

They can help the parties involve understand that they do have a choice.  They can choose to walk away from rhetoric and brinkmanship and engage positively with each other.  They can seek to fully understand each other’s position, address the underlying needs and fears that are at the root of the dispute and find a bridge that will lead them to a solution.

It’s never too late to embrace this approach and resolve issues through dialogue – because dialogue is, after all, the only way a conflict will ever truly be resolved.

Organizations need to take urgent action to stop themselves sleepwalking into a very serious breakdown in industrial relations – which as we have seen in the past, can precipitate social unrest.

We need to transform the way we approach industrial relations.  That starts by organizations treating conflict management, of all types, as a strategic priority.  They need to make time for serious reflection about the culture and climate they are creating for their workforce – and think about how they can shift to a people-focused, values-led, fair and just approach, which puts compassion, collaboration and above all constructive dialogue front and centre.

The clock is ticking. If these critical conversations are left any longer, the issues will become more and more difficult to resolve and organizations will fail to build the happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces they need to succeed in these challenging times.

This article is originally published on December 11, 2022.

About the Author

David LiddleDavid Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group and founding president of the Institute of Organizational Dynamics. He is the author of the newly published book Transformational Culture (Kogan Page).


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