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Back to the future  – is industrial relations making a comeback?

The headlines are currently dominated by strikes across a range of sectors. We are seeing post workers, refuge workers, barristers and train workers striking across the country. The Port of Felixstowe which handles almost half of the UK’s container trade, has been overwhelmed by strike action and now teachers and nurses are threatening to strike too. The latter is particularly notable; The Royal College of Nursing has not once gone on strike in its 106-year history.

Below the headlines, the statistics confirm that the Summer and Autumn of discontent has truly arrived. In the months of June 2022 and July 2022 alone, the number of strikes was more than double that of the total strikes in the whole of 2018. The same can be said when compared to the total number of strikes in the whole of 2019 too.

Of course, we recognise that there are a set of external circumstances which are creating the perfect storm and fuelling labour disputes. Employers and employees alike are suffering from extremely high energy costs, the country is on the verge of a recession, severe supply chain disruptions have been caused by Brexit and Covid-19, there are currency pressures and inflation is at the highest it has been for decades. These factors are causing problems both for employers and employees.

With all these issues set against a backdrop of years of wage stagnation, it is clear why employees, suffering real wage decline and faced with frightening cost of living pressures will want to push for pay increases. In certain areas, workers will see the union as providing their best approach to fighting for those pay increases.  The unions have never been more relevant than now, after so many years of declining membership, with the scope to recruit and gain traction in the private sector.   At the same time as the unions gain in strength, employers have less and less room for manoeuvre to meet employee demand.


This may not be a one-size fits all approach, so employers will need to think dynamically and engage with staff. Hybrid working policies should be flexible over this period to accommodate potential savings for individuals on commuting costs or increasing energy costs at home.

To add fuel to the fire, the government is strongly signalling that it intends to have some sort of onslaught on employee rights, so apart from the energy and costs situation, this is likely to energise the unions even more and employees will look to them for protection and representation.

In this climate, what should employers be doing?

In the current environment, many employees will be suffering significant cost of living pressures. Organisations can think about what they could do to assist with those cost of living pressures. Some of this may come down to pay, but some of the support may be through other means; the importance of which should not be overlooked. This may not be a one-size fits all approach, so employers will need to think dynamically and engage with staff. Hybrid working policies should be flexible over this period to accommodate potential savings for individuals on commuting costs or increasing energy costs at home. These are factors which may have little or no cost to the business but make a significant difference to employees. Essentially, having some appreciation of what it is that is motivating your employees is important. Be human-centred and be reasonable with pay increases where you can whilst having to balance that against affordability.  One-off payments that do not impact pension and other benefits may provide short term support.

Ensure you have good communication processes, otherwise unions will be sure to step in and fill any void. Speak regularly with staff and encourage them to voice any feedback or concerns. Equally make sure that staff feel there are confidential lines of communication that they can use to approach the organisation in relation to more sensitive topics. Elected staff forums can be a strong conduit of information and ideas.

If you do have a recognised union, do not treat them as the enemy. Understand that they are legitimate and have members who are your employees and your colleagues. Recognise them as a valid social partner: be reasonable towards them and have them be reasonable towards you in return. It is worthwhile being as open as you can be about what the business must do and what it can afford. Ultimately you should be looking to create a mature relationship with the union.  Ensure that the collective agreement is fit for purpose and up to date, many are years old and fail to deal with the current working environment and issues.  Built in layers of communication are important, so there is somewhere to go if the first level communications break down.

Clearly in a unionised environment, things are heavily governed by the legal framework that surrounds the relationship, so employers will have to be careful about the steps they take in relation to the union and those employees that fall within the bargaining unit. Equally, however, unions must be careful – they are also bound by the same legal framework and have duties to adhere to this framework in the steps they take. Industrial relations law can be a technical minefield.

If you need advice on any industrial relations matters, we have significant experience dealing with advising companies across different regions and sectors on union recognition, arrangements for setting up staff forums, collective bargaining, industrial action & ballots and contingency planning.

Please do not hesitate to contact our employment law team or check out our expertise page on the website 

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This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

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